"Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." (Psalm 51:5, NRSV)
On Monday, September 15th, 1963, a young attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, gave a speech to the Young Men's Business Club. His name was Charles Morgan, Jr. It quickly became apparent that he was no longer welcome in Birmingham after his presentation. The date is significant to the speech because on the previous day, Sunday, September 14th, 1963, a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls and maiming many more. Noting that there had been hundreds of bombings in Birmingham and pointing to the fact that a capable and competent police department had been unable to solve not a single one of those crimes, he addressed the question of who might be responsible for the deadly explosion?
It wasn't asking the question about who might be guilty of instigating this horror that got him into trouble; it was the answer he gave. He said everyone in Birmingham who continually turned a blind eye to racism was to blame. He called out his colleagues for their silence and public officials, including the governor, for having contributed to the toxic environment that made bombings and killing innocent lives an acceptable response to those who resisted the injustices of the day. He reserved special condemnation for White Christians and their clergy, "who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence," in hopes of this kind of moral stand absolving them of their previous complacency.
The response to Morgan's speech was swift and heated. The upstanding citizens in attendance were indignant at the assertion that they bore any responsibility for what happened at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. They were hard-working, respectable contributors to society, not violent thugs who planted bombs. For Morgan to categorize them with those who would take others' lives was an insult to their integrity. They weren't capable of that kind of behavior. As a result, Morgan was isolated, then ostracized, making it hard to continue his law practice and requiring him to move away from Birmingham for other opportunities.
The short verse written above from Psalm 51 offers a possible explanation for the reaction to his speech. It says, "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me." We don't believe that about ourselves—at least not to the extent that would put us in the same category as bombers who kill innocent children. We are willing to acknowledge we occasionally do bad things, like falling prey to temptations such as overindulging or telling a white lie. But we don't identify ourselves as "sinners" in the same way we define others as "sinners" who do far worse things than we. We may even perceive ourselves as more righteous than others and therefore incapable of
doing anything as severe as harming others. Thus, like those in the audience for Charles Morgan's speech, we conclude we aren't as bad as the real sinners, and should anyone accuse us otherwise, we'll run them out-of-town, too.
The truth is this: We all carry the seed of Adam's sin in our being, and unless we live with an awareness of how that seed quickly takes root and grows, we risk failing to safeguard ourselves from unintentionally harming ourselves and others through our carelessness. Our resistance to reckoning with our sinful nature allows us to dismiss the little sins in our lives that grow into more damaging sins over time. This process of increasing desensitization eventually causes us to deny our big sins, too. In our self-righteousness, we consider any challenge to our behavior as an insult to our integrity. To this way of thinking, the apostle Paul wrote,
"There is no one who is righteous, no not one." (Romans 3:10, NRSV)
When I recognize that I am a sinner who is inclined to act out of selfishness, I will be open to those who point out how I unintentionally contribute to others' harm. It does not minimize the good things I do to admit that sometimes, in my ignorance, my behavior may not be as righteous as I think it is. I can receive God's judgment as a gracious call to do better rather than as a call to justify my righteousness. I am, and always will be, a sinner in need of God's grace. I can't escape that fact. But my hope is in Jesus Christ, whose love and grace compel me to confront my sin and to become a better person, not just for my sake, but for the sake of the world.