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Dismantling Systemic Sin

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Scripture: John 3:14-21

I used to be one of those people who pushed back against the idea of Original Sin. I didn’t want to believe that there is an inclination in us to hurt one another, to steal from one another, to ignore each other’s pain.

I do think that, at best, we’re growing from our mistakes, even our worst mistakes. I even think we’re inherently good. How could we not be? A God who is love created us and called us very good! I think that inherent goodness is why the world functions as well as it does. We might hear a lot about the awful stuff, but society works because we all implicitly almost always agree to keep each other safe. We get out of each other’s way when we walk in the grocery store, we generally rush over when we see a stranger in immediate trouble, and during this pandemic, at least around here, we’ve all agreed to wear masks and keep our distance.

Individually, face to face with another person, I think we choose to love one another much more often than not. But face to face is not usually where Original Sin manifests. Original Sin is insidious.

Original Sin didn’t reveal itself only in the people who locked the doors of the gas chambers during the Holocaust. It revealed itself in the people who sold and transported the bricks to build them. It revealed itself in the thousands of people who managed the schedules for the trains to the concentration camps, who inventoried and redistributed the gold teeth and shoes of Jews who no longer needed them. There were so many opportunities for people to step back and recognize how they were participating in genocide. But their little job seemed so inconsequential, so removed from the actual atrocities.

Genocide wasn’t the act of a few evil people. Genocide was the act of tens of thousands of people just doing their jobs, choosing to look away from what their seemingly mundane actions were building. That’s where Original Sin thrives.

A better name for Original Sin might be Systemic Sin.


This week on this anniversary of lockdowns, I read an article in the New York Times about what the pandemic has shown us about ourselves. I knew it was all true but it was still startling: It said, “In America, your experience of lockdown — and of the pandemic as a whole — depended not on luck or chance or fortune. It was instead largely foretold by something far more prosaic: the position you held on the socioeconomic spectrum, by your class, race and gender. Across so many issues, the pandemic is not a story of an infection curve rising and falling, but two lines moving in different directions.”

The article then went on to show chart after chart that revealed disproportionate impact. Higher income people were more able to work remotely. They kept their jobs at much higher rates and contracted the virus at much lower rates than lower income people. People of color disproportionately make up the population of lower earners, of janitors in office buildings that were suddenly empty, of waiters whose restaurants closed, of meatpackers forced to work in unsafe conditions, of grocery store cashiers who we all needed to show up to work. So they bore the brunt of either job loss or Covid infection. A much greater proportion of Black, Latino, and Indigenous people lost their lives to the virus particularly among people under 65 and particularly among children. (source)

This isn’t politics. These are facts.

As a lot of us learned in Sacred Ground, American culture tells us a certain story about people in poverty, and specifically people of color in poverty. If they just worked harder. If they just pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. “God helps those who help themselves.”

But the truth is, growing up in a poor neighborhood means going to an underfunded school. That’s just how our public school funding is set up. Underfunded schools mean under-educated kids. Under-educated kids don’t go to college. So they don’t get the degree they need to get better paying jobs. They earn low wages and have to turn to food stamps and other entitlements because their paychecks aren’t enough.

The truth is, we have set up a system that ties access to quality healthcare to certain kinds of employment, which, as I just mentioned, a lot of lower income people don’t have access to, so they are more likely to be in worse health generally. To have a lot of the underlying conditions that make Covid deadly.

“God helps those who help themselves.” This is not scripture. It’s not found anywhere in the Bible. It’s actually a quote from Ben Franklin*, an American myth claimed as truth. It’s a story we tell ourselves to look away from the impact of all of our seemingly mundane actions—things like how we fund schools or provide healthcare. They all add up to a vast system of inequality and suffering. The pandemic has shined the brightest light on this. This is our Original Sin.


I preached last week about how Christians reclaimed the cross, taking what was an instrument of torture and execution and making it a symbol of love and hope. As I think about it, though, it wasn’t Christians who reclaimed the cross, it was God.

I read this really beautiful quote this week from an educator named Mike McHargue that helped me to see this. He said, “The cross was not God's invention, it was ours. In all our need for an eye for an eye, I have to wonder sometimes if God listened to us cry for blood and offered God's own, if Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was not to sate God's wrath, but to show God's response to ours.”

The cross was, in fact, a symbol of our sin, of our willingness to harm not only each other but Jesus himself. Of our commitment to an eye for an eye, to people getting what we think they deserve. Pilate washed his hands. It was Original Sin that killed Jesus.

But do you know how God responds to our sin?

“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

God’s response was not an eye for an eye. It was not a demand that we help ourselves before God would help us. It was self-giving. It was love. And God’s love is impossible to overstate. Because God is love. That’s what our Bible actually says.

Jesus was God’s love embodied, walking among us, showing us the way. In the midst of all the ways we set up the world so that sin could thrive, God did not smite us, God sent Love.

So let’s rethink today’s gospel with that in mind.

“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s Love, so that everyone who believes in Love may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send Love into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Love. Those who believe in Love are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in Love.”

Our call in the face of suffering is not to figure out who deserves what. It’s not to protect what we have at the expense of others. It’s not to look away from those who are hurting.

Our call in the face of suffering is to recognize how we contribute to systems of sin that create that suffering. Our call is to dismantle those systems and create new ones in which all of God’s people can thrive.

Our call in the face of suffering is to do what God did: send Love.


* While Ben Franklin included this quote in his Poor Richard's Almanack, he likely did not coin the phrase. A variation of the phrase probably originated with early Greek philosophers.

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