The Sinful Incurvature of American Whiteness (Part 1)

In a rousing rector’s address,[1] my largely white congregation in Chicago was tasked this year with beginning and sustaining the “life-giving, soul-searing” work of dealing honestly with our white privilege, and its underlying injustices. One of the first steps we took was to have a one-church one-book conversation on Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Coates offers a vivid and eye-opening account of what it was like for him growing up black in Baltimore, and I was especially struck by his criticism of the language of “intention”—namely, that it functions more to appease white consciences than to change black circumstances.[2]

In this post, and the one following, I want to consider this criticism from a theological perspective—first demonstrating that our white tendency to focus myopically on our intentions is a symptom of our sinful condition as human beings curved in on ourselves; and second, showing how the gospel has the power to free us from the prison of our self-absorption, so that we may truly serve our black brothers and sisters rather than ourselves.

First let’s look a little closer at Coates’ criticism.

By Montesbradley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Looking back at his years in the Baltimore City Public School System, Coates concludes that the schools effectively served “to sanctify failure and destruction” in the streets. “It does not matter that the ‘intentions’ of individual educators were noble,” he says. “Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, ‘intend’ for you is secondary…The point of this language of ‘intention’…is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history.”[3]

Reading this passage, I reflected on the seemingly well-intentioned question we white Americans inevitably ask each other and ourselves: “is X or Y racist?” And it seemed to me that Coates was on to something—that this question is, much of the time, really a question about our white intentions. It isn’t what happens to our black brothers and sisters that primarily concerns us, it’s whether we have to feel bad about it personally. As long as we “mean well” (or at least feel that we do) we can feel good about ourselves. And as long as we can feel good about ourselves we’re content.

But why is this our modus operandi?

Following St. Augustine, Martin Luther identifies the sinful human being as homo incurvatus in se — the human being curved in on itself.[4] “Scripture,” according to Luther, “describes man as so turned in on himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself.”[5] Human nature “knows nothing but its own good, or what is good and honorable and useful for itself, but not what is good for God and other people.”[6]

Listening to Coates’ criticism of the language of intention, I heard echoes of Luther. It started to dawn on me that as we white Americans grapple with the legacy left by slavery, we do so, to a large degree, as an attempt at self-justification.

Curved in on ourselves, we struggle, not so much for racial equality, as for our own self-respect. We white Americans learn about our past and our present with black Americans, about the theft of human beings from their ancestral homes, about the generations upon generations bought, sold, and disposed of as mere property, about their children strung up in trees lest they forget their place,[7] and about their children shot dead in the streets, or else shipped off and warehoused in mass,[8] legally stripped of their rights as citizens—and we become desperate. Yet, curved in on ourselves, we are not nearly as desperate to help our black brothers and sisters as we are desperate for some ground on which to proclaim to the world, and perhaps chiefly to ourselves: “not my fault!”

Such is the depth of our sinful self-absorption; so grotesque is our incurvature. Faced with generations of black suffering and dehumanization, we yet have the audacity to make this about ourselves. And we do so quite naturally.

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Adding to our understanding of this sinful condition, this incurvature, Karl Barth writes that “all sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge.”[9] We are those who reach for the forbidden fruit, for the knowledge of good and evil, pretending that the judgment seat is ours—that we are “like God.”[10] Curved in on ourselves, we presume to pass judgment on ourselves. Confronted with our history, and our present, with our black brothers and sisters, we white Americans are desperate for any excuse by which we might nevertheless pronounce ourselves free and righteous. This is our overwhelming concern. We are so consumed by it, so enslaved by it, that we aren’t free for God and for our black brothers and sisters. We are homo incurvatus in se. “The fruit of [that] tree which was eaten with such relish is still rumbling in all of us.”[11]

All this is not to suggest that our intentions are unimportant. It’s only to point out that we white Americans have a tendency to reduce the problem of racism to a matter of our intentions in an attempt to justify ourselves; and in the process we fundamentally miss the point. The point isn’t about whether white Americans “mean well.” It’s about whether black Americans have to go through life with the deck stacked against them. To the extent that we approach the issue of racism in our sinful self-absorption, as an exercise in self-justification, we white Americans will stop short of addressing the real problem. We will rest content with our coddled consciences while the systems of oppression continue their destruction.

Thankfully, however, we need not approach the problem of racism in our sinful self-absorption. There is another way. We can confront the sinful injustices of our past and our present in the freedom of the One who takes our place as judge.[12] In that freedom we can have true repentance. In that freedom we can be open in love for our black brothers and sisters rather than curved in on ourselves.

More on this freedom in the post to come.




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

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matt Jenson, The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on ‘homo incurvatus in se’ (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 47ff.

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works Vol. 25: Lectures on Romans, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 345.

[6] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[7] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).

[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: The New Press, 2012).

[9] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1 (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 220.

[10] Genesis 3:5, NRSV.

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

[12] Ibid.

[Ed. note: Alex 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 1)." Part 2 here]



Excellent post, Alex! Can't wait to read part 2. (I visited All Saints several times when I lived in Chicago.)

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