Last night I witnessed a white United Methodist pastor seeking to justify Donald Trump’s pardon of infamously racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio by appealing to Jesus’ cross. Since Jesus’ sacrifice pardons our sin when we don’t deserve it, why shouldn’t Donald Trump be allowed to pardon people who don’t deserve it? It was an argument that reflects a very common theology of sin and atonement pervasive throughout white evangelicalism that makes it helpless against white supremacy.
For too many white evangelicals, sin is understood exclusively in terms of authority and obedience. It describes any infraction against God’s rules which requires punishment. It’s irrelevant who is harmed by sin, if anyone at all, because for white evangelical theology, every sin is exactly equal since even one sin can earn eternal damnation. When sin is defined in this way, what Jesus provides on the cross is a giant eraser that nullifies the past. The only thing that matters is that you accept him into your heart with complete sincerity, which means that you need to be “changed” enough afterwards in at least some aspect of your life to feel like your decision was sincere.
When white evangelicals define sin in terms of authority and obedience, they have a hard time seeing authority figures as sinners. When someone like Sheriff Joe engages in cruelty, he’s just being a tough disciplinarian who might have gotten carried away. But he’s not sinning because he’s playing the role of God in the sin equation. Punishing crime cannot possibly be a crime itself for someone with an authoritarian ethical system. That’s why white evangelicals have a lot of trouble conceding any fault on the part of any law enforcement officials who harm people of color. They have no problem calling out corruption in leaders because corruption dishonors God’s authority, but excessively punishing a criminal or suspected criminal cannot possibly be sinful since it is the exercise of authority over the disobedient.
I believe that the Bible defines sin as anything that makes me harmful (idolatry) or causes harm (injustice). Defining sin in terms of harm changes how I understand what Jesus’ cross does and why it’s important. Jesus’ cross shows me what my sin is doing to other people. Because he forgave the people who were crucifying him since “they know not what they do,” I know that he forgives me too. His cross is both the exposure of my sin and the place he provides for my sin to be destroyed. My sin is not erased by Jesus’ sacrifice, but its power is destroyed. My scars remain just like Jesus’ nail holes remain, but they become signs of God’s deliverance rather than my shame.
In my understanding of the cross, Jesus is the victim of my sin. His authority over me is the authority of a plaintiff who has been given the right to judge his oppressors. That’s why the imagery of Revelation is so important. Jesus appears as a slain lamb who alone is worthy to judge. What makes him worthy to judge? The fact that he was slain, not his position at the top of the power hierarchy in the universe. In fact, his exaltation to a place of authority is biblically explained by his ability to empty himself into the form of a slave since he didn’t see the power of God as a thing to be grasped (Philippians 2). What Revelation would look like in Maricopa County, Arizona would be if one of the undocumented immigrants Sheriff Joe loved to torture was put in the seat with the gavel and Sheriff Joe stood before in a jumpsuit in handcuffs.
As it is, President Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe looks nothing like the radical transformation of Jesus’ cross that made a mockery of every earthly power and principality (Colossians 2:15). It’s just one more step in the unveiling of the farce of white America. I’ve stopped having the energy to be angry. Somehow I trust that Jesus’ cross has its own power. Though the rulers of empire stomp all over the marginalized people Jesus stands with and exonerate each other for their sin, they will not own the narrative forever because the cross will always haunt the world with its awful truth. Those who have co-opted Jesus’ cross to accommodate their white supremacy will one day go up in flames like every Indiana Jones villain who tried to toy with the things of God.
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