I come from a very fundamentalist family. My aunt and I in particular discuss religion fairly often when we’re together. As a Christian she tries to convert me, and as a Polytheist I reject those attempts, but there is still plenty of discussion outside of that.
During our last conversation we talked about the nature of belief, and faith vs. works, and a whole host of other things. But it’s when the idea of Original Sin came up that I realized I had some processing to do.
This is perhaps the most fundamental problem I’ve had with Christianity as a faith.
The Doctrine of Original Sin holds that the first sin committed – Eve eating apples from the Tree of Knowledge against God’s command – taints every human after her.
For some folks that means we’re all unclean from birth. Others interpret it to mean that we’re all “ethically debilitated”, meaning we’re simply more prone to sin than we would have been if Eve hadn’t fallen from God’s grace. Either way, though, only belief in Jesus can redeem us.
I could never buy that logic as a kid, much less as an adult. Judging someone by the actions of their forefathers made no sense. Sins of the fathers are not passed to the sons. I’m not going to blame someone with the misfortune to be born to a criminal for that criminal’s crimes. Much less a crime that occurred thousands of years ago, in an unverifiable myth, in a way that felt like a setup from the start.
To my mind, ditching Original Sin as a concept meant dismissing Christianity as a whole. After all, if there was no Original Sin to be forgiven, why did we as a people need Jesus in the first place? According to Christian doctrine H/he came to earth and died to forgive us for the Fall, and all the sins stemming from it. That was H/his whole purpose. No Original Sin? No need for Jesus.
I dusted my hands of the whole thing and moved on.
Years later, as my Pagan practice grew into something closer to true Polytheism, I encountered the idea of inherited debt and had to reassess some of my previous opinions.
The basic idea of inherited debt is that, due to either actions of our Ancestors or things we did in past lives, we have incurred karmic/spiritual debt that needs to be worked out or paid off. For example, those who abandoned their traditional Gods/Ancestors/Land back in the day bear a debt for those broken oaths, and that debt is passed down through the generations until it is paid by a descendant and the situation is righted.
Even beyond those types of transgressions, though, I didn’t just spontaneously spring from the ooze into an unformed world. My Gods and Ancestors worked hard to bring me here. I stand on the backs of all of those who came before me, who shaped the world I live in, and I owe them for that.
Thing is, that debt is never paid in full because there’s no way one lifetime is enough to do it. I am indebted deeper than I can ever pay it off. That debt is the price I pay to be a human, to have a corporeal body, to learn the lessons this go-round that I’m supposed to learn.
I began seeing this debt as an extension of Hospitality, because it arises from and is entwined with relationships between myself and the Gods/Ancestors/Land. Once that concept clicked for me I started incorporating the honoring of that debt into my personal practice.
Racial Justice and Privilege
A few years later I dated a woman who was (and still is) very involved in racial justice. It was a new thing for me to think about as a white girl, and even with my college background in gender studies I didn’t really get it. She was approaching it from an academic angle, and that’s not how I learn this kind of thing. I need stories, experiences. I need the people element to connect.
It was on her recommendation that I started following various Facebook feeds, like Son of Baldwin and The Root. I still follow them. I don’t talk, but I listen with intent. It’s not up to POCs to educate me, but their stories are the only way I can learn. So I expose myself to their experiences and perspectives, research what confuses me, and learn as much as I can.
Through all of that I came across two articles that helped.
The first was Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person by Gina Crosley-Corcoran. It explained privilege to me in a way that my ex couldn’t. Finally I had some concepts to work with!
As the article explains, “privilege” is a collective term for all the ways I benefit from society by default. I don’t have to do anything to get those benefits, I can openly say I don’t want them, and yet I get them anyway. Those benefits are just as much a part of my heritage as hair and eye color, because I’m benefiting from a system of oppression created and enforced by my Ancestors for generations.
The second article, The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, approaches white privilege from the other direction. These were ideas I had to grapple with, hard, because Coates makes some damned good points in that article. I’m still processing some of them.
The whole thing comes down to this: If I directly benefit from a system of oppression established by my Ancestors that still shapes life in America today, then aren’t those punished under that same system owed some sort of recompense to balance the scales?
This is an inherited debt that’s even more tangible than the others I’ve already mentioned, because it’s about relationships in the here-and-now. This isn’t a spiritual thing I accept on faith or through woo-woo experiences. I can look around me and see the effects of this system on the evening news.
The more I considered it the larger the debt became. I do my best to be a true ally in the fight for racial equality, but it never feels like enough. Everything I do is a drop in a bottomless bucket. I don’t feel guilty about it on a personal level, but I do feel a sense of obligation or responsibility about it. If I get the bennies I bear part of the burden. That only makes sense.
Like the price I pay for being human, this too is an inherited indebtedness that can’t be quantified, grows ever larger, and can never be paid.
Rethinking Original Sin
Interpretations of what the whole story with Eve in the Garden really means are too many to count. There are debates about whether or not there was a Garden at all, or an apple, or a snake. Some people think the apples conferred not knowledge but the desire to be independent, or desire in the sexual sense.
I’m starting to think that Eve’s theft of the apple represents something else entirely. Eve took an apple that God did not want to give her. She forcibly took something from another. She created a debt. And every generation that came after her just added to that debt. Then actions taken by different lineages made that burden even heavier, the debt greater, the obligations harder to meet.
The story of Eve in the Garden comes to us through Judaism, a faith that ritualizes the meeting of these obligations. The halakhah – Jewish Law, or literally “the path that one walks” – is a set of codified behaviors that reinforce and honor the relationship not just between the individual and God, but between the individual and the entire Jewish community. And yes, there are some of these for Ancestors as well. From what I can tell, their actions essentially make payments on their debts, with the understanding that they are never fully paid. They’ll follow those rituals until they die.
According to Christians, Jesus’s death on the cross ended all those obligations. It put paid to all debts that came before and would come after. All you had to do to have your share of the debt forgiven was believe that Jesus paid it, and as long as you truly believed your slate was clean.
I can certainly see the appeal of that perspective. These burdens are heavy, and meeting these obligations can seem overwhelming. Why not jump at the chance to pass that burden off to another who wants it enough to die for it?
I don’t think I buy it though. With this interpretation my disbelief is shifting away from the whole concept of Original Sin and towards the ease of forgiveness of it. I think there’s more to it than that, and Gods know my approach is more similar to the Jewish one than the Christian one.
Honestly I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore, or if this whole train of thought is even valid, or where to go from here. I don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle yet, so I’m not sure what the picture will look like when it’s all together.
I think that all I can do is study, and listen, and try to understand. Hopefully I’ll accumulate some knowledge on my own, without needing to steal an apple from a tree in a garden. But just in case… where’s a helpful snake when you need one?