In 1962, James Baldwin penned a letter to his nephew. Anticipating the 100th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation, Baldwin was considering the state of black life in America and giving advice to the young man especially around how to interact with white folks. He tells the boy again and again to greet a loveless world with love. But Baldwin, in his particular genius, turns the tables on what we’d expect from this kind of advice. He tells the young black man that white people assume their work is to accept him. Instead he says,
“The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black [people] are inferior to white [people].”
Until they understand [their history] they cannot be released from it.
Sins that must be retained
The story from John’s Gospel about Pentecost, includes a line that has always troubled me. As he breathes on them, Jesus tells the disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The line has always bothered me, because I wasn’t brought up to believe that sins should be retained.
Christians are a forgiving people. Jesus tell us, forgive seventy times seven times. But here is Jesus, after the resurrection, in some of his last moments with the disciples, telling them that some sins must be retained.
James Baldwin told his nephew to accept his white neighbor with compassion, because they are trapped in a history they don’t understand, and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.
I found myself this week, as I watched another city burn with the fires of anger over police brutality, as we witnessed again the righteous rage which is as persistent as our nations systemic inequity, thinking about sin.
I’ve said it in sermons before, the most useful definition of sin I know is this: sin is that which which diminishes my humanity or the humanity of my neighbor. I wonder if Jesus isn’t being prescriptive here as much as descriptive. Jesus is telling it like it is: You can’t just forgive and forget a sin, at least until that sin is understood. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous tell us that the first step is admitting that you have a problem. A sin can’t be forgiven until we make the steps, until we admit the problem, until we work to undo the system which diminishes humanity.
Put another way, a lot of sin is structural. We participate in social structures which diminish us, which diminish our neighbors. “They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black [people] are inferior to white [people].” Some sins are retained because the sins are not isolated. They participate in ongoing systems which continue to diminish us, to diminish our neighbors. Some sins must be retained, because you can’t forgive a sin that has not been fully admitted, until the consequences of the sin are owned. Anything less is not forgiveness, it’s denial.
Denial means sin persists
If Jesus is right, if Baldwin is right, then the persistence of racism, what has been called America’s original sin, is due to its denial. If our response to the death of George Floyd, if our response to the protests and the rage we are seeing in Minneapolis and across our nation, if our response is to deny that there is a problem with policing. If we deny that there are legitimate fears, legitimate grievances, that denial is the reason the structure of sin will persist.
As a resident of St. Louis, over half of my tax dollars go to public safety, over half. And yet, we have not been able to police our way out of our position as America’s most violent system. The folks who live in the most violent neighborhoods trust the police the least. George Floyd’s death wasn’t isolated, any more than the overwhelming number of black deaths from COVID-19 are isolated. The pandemics are linked because our economics, our health system and our so-called justice system, treat black life as more expendable than white life.
Until we can admit we have a problem, until we understand our history, as the old saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it.
Pentecost and the power of the Spirit
The theologian Willie Jennings focuses our attention on a moment before Pentecost, if we are to understand Pentecost’s promise. Jesus is risen. He has conquered death. He encounters the disciples with all power in his hands, and do you know what the disciples ask: “When will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” That is to say, “when will people who look like us, who think like us, be in charge?” Jennings says those early disciples face the same problem we Christians have faced across history. It’s the same question we face today: Will we worship Jesus, or power?
But, Willie Jennings says, the amazing grace comes in the Spirit. The people who prayed for power, who had fantasies of holding power over others, instead receive the Holy Spirit. A gift they did not pray for, could not have prayed for, could not have imagined. People who had fantasized about control receive a different kind of power. They learn to speak another language.
The Spirit brings power power, not to control, but to build a new future, where folks are heard and understood. “It bears repeating,” Jennings says, “this is not what the disciples imagined or hoped…This is the beginning of a revolution that the Spirit performs.” God is calling us to be a new country, a new way of being. And God’s Spirit will carry us, if we allow.
Baldwin’s letter to his nephew is included in a book with an ominous title: “The Fire Next Time.” The title comes from a line in an old spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time.”
It would have been terrifying to watch those tongues of flame settling over the heads of the disciples. Fire has the capacity to destroy, yes. Fire can be terrifying. But remember, fire is also an image of the presence of God. Fire can clear the way for something new. Fire can burn away impurities. Fire can forge.
So this Pentecost, James Baldin’s question remains: will we be trapped in a history we don’t understand? Or will we listen? Will we listen to the anger, to the pain, to the frustration of our neighbors? Will we listen to the pain in our own bodies? Will we listen to the effect that structural sin continues to have? Will we let the fire of the Holy Spirit consume our nation’s old and ruinous ways?
We’ve all seen the images of Minneapolis on fire. What you might not have seen are images of the protests that have turned into cleanup efforts. Activists, even in the midst of destruction, are imagining a new way forward.
There beneath the anger, there smoldering in the ruined 3rd police precinct of Minneapolis, God is present. The Spirit of God is always with us. Will we listen? Will we yield to the Spirit? Will we allow that Holy Wind to blow us into a new country? Will we allow the Spirit to do her wise work, to remake us? Will we retain, hold fast to the Spirit’s work, until the structures of sin can be finally released?