The Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness (Part 2)

According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, “‘good intention’ is a hall pass through history.”[1]

Intention is something we white Americans tend to focus on in an attempt to wash our hands of black suffering. So long as we “mean well,” we suppose, there is no blood on our hands. But to our black brothers and sisters who are still bleeding, the cleanliness of white hands is quite beside the point.

In my first post, I showed how this white American tendency to reduce the problem of racism to a matter of our intentions is a manifestation of our sinful condition as homo incurvatus in se—as human beings curved in on ourselves. We are so self-absorbed that we encounter our history and our present with black Americans as, above all, a threat to our own self-respect. In our sinful incurvature we have taken it upon ourselves to judge ourselves, and we are desperate for some ground on which to proclaim ourselves free and righteous. We are so consumed, so enslaved, by this task that we are not free for God and for our neighbors.

In this condition, we do not fight racism so much as our own nagging sense of condemnation. We do not work for our black brothers and sisters so much as for our own self-justification. And we will settle at a point where we feel our consciences are clean, even though our neighbors may continue to suffer at the hands of unjust systems.

But there is another way! And that is what this second post is about.

By User: Vmenkov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Rather than approaching the problem of racism in our sinful incurvature, as an exercise in self-justification, we can approach it in the freedom of the One who takes our place as judge—and that means as those whose concern is not for ourselves, but truly for our black brothers and sisters.

According to Karl Barth, Christ has come to take our place as judge.[2] In Christ, that is, God has taken back the judgment seat that is rightfully God’s—the place that we presume to occupy in our vain attempt to be like God. And in this we find our freedom. “It is a nuisance,” Barth writes, “and at bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence. It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent, we are in the right.”[3]

In the One who has taken our place as judge, we white Americans are freed from the all-consuming (and yet ultimately impossible) task of justifying ourselves. “It is no longer necessary that I should pronounce myself free and righteous.” This is “no longer my office or in any way my concern.”[4] As we white Americans relinquish our concern for our own justification, leaving that up to God, we will come to see our intentions as one factor (significant, though not exhaustive) within the complex obstacle course black Americans have to navigate. We will stop treating our good intentions as an excuse for ignoring black problems—because, freed from our sinful incurvature, we will care about our neighbors’ problems as their problems, rather than caring about them only to the extent that they create problems for us.

We will stop making excuses altogether (whether for white behavior or black suffering). In Christ we will be free to acknowledge the depth of our sin against our black brothers and sisters, and we will be given the strength to come face to face with the extent to which we are implicated in the present systems of oppression.

By Deror_avi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
We will no longer have to convince ourselves that we are innocent, because in Christ we have no reason to fear accusation—nor even condemnation. As it occurs in Christ, we know that our accusation and condemnation is in fact God’s grace to us, and our liberation. It is that by which God “has made an end of us as sinners and therefore of sin itself.”[5] Martin Luther describes it as the “death of death, the sin of sin, the poison of poison, and the imprisoning of imprisonment,” and the Apostle Paul as our being “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[6]

If only we white Americans were given ears to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ—the gospel which, according to Barth, demands not only our “notice, or understanding, or sympathy,” but our “participation, comprehension, [and] co-operation”—our approach to the problems of racial inequality would thus change dramatically.

No longer curved in on ourselves, we would be open in love for our black brothers and sisters. We would listen to them, learn from them, and place ourselves at their disposal, where we could be used for God’s liberative purposes rather than our own desperate and futile attempts at saving face. We would confront the problems of racial inequality in their full complexity—even as we ourselves are implicated in them and condemned with them—because we would know that our condemnation as sinners, in Christ, is itself God’s grace to us and the working of our salvation.

May God give us ears to hear.



[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York, NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 33.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 231-232.

[3] Ibid., 233.

[4] Ibid., 234.

[5] Ibid., 253.

[6] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1968), 194; Romans 6:4, NRSV.

[Ed. note: Alex DeMarco (@Alex_J_DeMarco) is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary who now lives on the North Side of Chicago. He blogs (irregularly, alas) at Religionless-Worldly Christianity. This is the first of two guest posts from Alex on this theme. The full title is: "On the Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness: Lessons from Ta-Nehisi Coates, Karl Barth, and Martin Luther (Part 2)." Part 1 here.]



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