Many years ago when I was pastoring a church in Cambridge, I was praying for a young Asian-American college student who came up to me after the Sunday worship service. He said that he was struggling with the concept of sin. He didn’t feel particularly sinful and was wondering what it meant for a person to be a sinner. This individual considered himself to be a pretty good person. In fact, his family, his friends, and the society around him had declared him to be a good person. He was a model student, a model son, and a model minority. He didn’t understand how he could be a sinner.
Many years later, I was sitting with an African-American pastor friend. He had been a significant mentor to me in helping our church walk through issues related to urban youth ministry. He challenged my understanding of how to do altar calls. He contrasted the evangelical Christian (as well as my own) need and tendency to elicit a sense of sinfulness from the individual seeking conversion. He asserted that many African-American youth have already been told by society how wretched they are. They don’t need the church to tell them that they are sinful and that there’s something spiritually not right about them – they’ve been told that all their life. Your Asian-American Harvard undergrad is the one who really needs to hear that they might actually fall short of the glory of God.
Unchained Voices is a collection of writings from black authors from the 18th century, edited by Vincent Carretta. It’s interesting to observe the repeated note of self-awareness about one’s sinfulness and “wretchedness” in the narratives offered by Carretta. For example, David George writes: “there was no possibility of relief, and that I must go to hell. I saw myself a mass of sin. I could not read, and had no scriptures. I did not think of Adam and Eve’s sin, but I was sin. I felt my own plague” (334-335). Equiano also reflects this perspective: “I felt that I was altogether unholy . . . I was still in nature’s darkness” (260).
Conversion requires a sense of one’s own guilt, sinfulness, and wretchedness. I don’t have a problem with that doctrine, but it is interesting how circumstances, history, and context often determine how that doctrine is received, appropriated and applied.
And herein is the reminder: “Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” But why is it that some of us are made to feel more like a wretch than others?