“Forgive Us”: Christians, Injustice & Corporate Confession

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Author and activist Bryan Stevenson was recently interviewed on The Daily Show, and in his conversation with Jon Stewart, noted that Americans often have a difficult time acknowledging and confessing those corporate injustices—like racism— that are a part of our shared history and a part of our present-day culture. As I watched, I found myself thinking about how the Church, with the age-old sacrament of confession and the tradition of corporate lament, is equipped to speak powerfully and counter-culturally to this very issue.  So why have so many of our congregations allowed the practice of corporate confession fall by the wayside? 

Perhaps it is because many of us struggle to find words adequate to lament those sins committed against indigenous people, African Americans, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups throughout American history. This is why the book, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith is so powerful and so practical. In Forgive Us, authors  Soong-Chan Rah, Mae Elise Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, and Troy Jackson provide historical information, reflection, and prayers around Christianity’s complicity in sins against God’s creation, indigenous people, African Americans and people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Jews and Muslims.  

This has been an amazing fall for book releases, and Forgive Us was one of my favorites, which is why I’m so thrilled to welcome all four authors to the blog today to talk about corporate confession and its role in the American Church today. 

RHE: Throughout the book, you make a point of identifying yourselves as evangelical Christians. Why was that important to you? 

Soong-Chan: A few months ago I got a phone call from a national newspaper for an interview about diversity in evangelicalism. Out of curiosity, I inquired about the reporter's background and she stated that she had no religious background but that she was originally a political reporter who was assigned the "evangelical" beat because of her background in politics. Unfortunately, in recent years, evangelicalism has become defined as a purely political movement. I think we are hoping to restore some of the theological identification of evangelicalism. That's why we state at the beginning of the book, our commitment to a high view of Scripture and to a high view of Jesus, which has historically been key markers for evangelical faith. I think more people would identify with this theological definition over and against the political definition that has come to identify evangelicalism in the United States.

From another angle, I personally do not want to abandon the term because it shows a greater sense of responsibility for the sins of evangelical Christian faith. I was at a Native American Theology conference when one of the white participants stated that we should abandon terms like evangelical and Christian. A Native American theologian replied that abandoning those terms would also be a shirking of responsibility that comes with the history of those names. In other words, abandoning those terms by those who have historically perpetuated those terms would be the opposite of what we are calling for in this book. Which is the acknowledgement of historical sin and the seeking of forgiveness that leads to a restored and redeemed faith community.

In the Introduction to “Forgive Us,” you show that throughout Scripture lament and confession are corporate acts. And yet much of Christian culture regards sin and confession as individual concerns. In what sense is corporate confession countercultural? (Say that three times fast!) 

Lisa: In our hyper-individualized society we have lost the sense of being connected to much more than our own individual identity, desires, choices, and brokenness. Our society elevates the self and fails to acknowledge the reality of human sin. But this was not the world of the Hebrews. 

The Hebrew people were a communal and indigenous culture. Individuals’ core identities were interwoven with the generations that came before, their extended families, their community, and the land where they and their ancestors lived. We see Nehemiah stand in the gap confessing the sins his people as his own, though he never lived in Jerusalem and had nothing to do with the tangible cause of the burning of Jerusalem’s walls. In Lamentations 3, we see Jeremiah offer a lament and confess the sins of his community though he repeatedly did what was right before God. Corporate confession was a critical practice; exercised most often when the culture and governance of a society denigrated the image of God in their midst by disregarding the orphan, the widow, the immigrant, or the poor. 

The call of the Kingdom of God is always counter-cultural. Jesus says, “…the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1: 15b) Paul warns us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12: 2a) 

Corporate confession is counter-cultural in our society because the hyper-individualistic, self-worshipping nature of our culture is counter to God—ultimately, it leads us to disregard and even crush the image of God in marginalized and impoverished peoples. This is the first place where we need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We need God to take our blinders off—to help us see how we are all connected—to help us see the image of God in “the other”—to help us stand in the gap like Nehemiah and Jeremiah—to own the reality that the forbearers of our Christian American faith were not transformed in these respects and the consequences still live with us. The walls are down and the gates have been burned by fire, per-say, and like in Nehemiah’s day, we need to confess the sins of our people so that our land can be healed.

How do you respond to those who would argue that many of the sins you describe in this book were committed by others—in some cases long ago—and therefore none of our concern?

Mae: Sin, brokenness, and separation from God’s perfection are realities not only for us as individuals but for our communities as well. It is imperative that we not only acknowledge our individual sins, but also that we realize and accept ways we benefit from unjust systems and corporate brokenness. Slavery is a good example. Many whites in the United States today may claim that slavery is a “historic sin” and is irrelevant today. People might claim we shouldn’t repent of the sin of slavery because, for recent immigrants, our ancestors didn’t own slaves. Yet, systems and infrastructures continue to exist today which were built on the injustices of slavery. After reconstruction  and until passage of the 1965 voting rights act white families and communities were able to build up capital and privilege while black Americans lived under the mantle of Jim Crow voting and segregation laws in the south, and red-lining and workplace segregation in the north. These privileges and racial assumptions continue to exist in our society today. It is imperative that the church acknowledge the ways we have benefited from these unjust systems. We must repent of both individual and corporate sins where we have been complicit and have inherited privilege. 

Why is acknowledgment of sin so important to true reconciliation? 

Troy: This book began as a response to a section in Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller when he described setting up a confessional booth at a raucous annual festival at Reed College in Portland. Instead of inviting confessions, Christians confessed the historic sins of the church to those who came to the booth.

As an historian, it struck me that this should and could be an important posture that the church should assume when engaging the world. We should adopt a confessional stance, acknowledging the many ways the church has failed God and humanity. The trouble is, we have a very surface level view of the sins of the American Church. We might be able to talk about racism or sexism in a generic way, but not with much specificity. I quickly realized that an anemic understanding of sin leads to anemic confessions, robbing them of the power to transform the confessor and those hearing the confession.

So at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, we launched a six-week sermon series in the Spring of 2007 called “The Confessions of the Church.” Each week, I shared some of the tragic history of the church in how we have sinned against African Americans, Immigrants, Women, and the LGBTQ community. These sermons sparked a lot of introspection and lively confession and repentance within the lives of congregational members.

When it comes to people who have been historically mistreated, abused, and sinned against, any attempt at whole relationship that skips this step of honest understanding of history and heartfelt confession will be little more than assimilation. This has all-too-often been the approach of the white church toward African Americans: we are somewhat sorry you’ve endured so much, but now you are welcome to join our church if you would like. This is not reconciliation for it fails to honor African American culture and to account for centuries of wounds and abuse. 

The chapter on sins against indigenous people really moved me. Tell us a little about how, in response to dialog with indigenous theologians and activists, InterVarsity made policies to submit to the spiritual authority of original peoples regarding the land. (I thought that was a nice example of prayerful listening leading to action.) 

Lisa: It wasn’t so much policy changes, as it was conscious decisions on the parts of leaders of the time to submit themselves to the authority of the first peoples of their regions when making decisions about where their regional and national conferences were to be held. For example, I directed a racial healing conference in Greater Los Angeles called “One God, Many Nations” in 2004. Richard Twiss (Lakota author of One Church, Many Tribes) was a new mentor in my life at the time. He agreed to serve as our keynote speaker, but strongly advised us to seek the blessings of first people of the Los Angeles area where the conference would take place. I did. 

I called the office of the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe of Los Angeles and spoke with a member of the tribal council. She didn’t understand my request, at first. I explained that I was a staff member of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles. We had come to recognize the spiritual authority that Creator God gave to all the first peoples of the land to serve as stewards and protectors of their appointed lands. We understand that the Tongva were the first peoples of Los Angeles. We would like to hold a racial healing conference on the land, but we understand the process is as important as the content of our gathering. In recognition of the spiritual authority of the Tongva people, we ask for the tribe’s blessing over our gathering. If granted, we would like to open our gathering with a traditional protocol ceremony. The tribal council member took my message to the council. Days later, she contacted me to let me know the people were moved by our humility and agreed to offer their blessing. The Chair of the Tongva council board attended our gathering. The Divisional Director of Intervarsity – Greater Los Angeles and I gifted the leader with a Pendelton blanket and sage. The Tongva chair offered his blessings over our gathering.

I continued to contact the Tongva council chair to ask for the council’s blessing for each large conference we convened until the chair said, “Lisa, you have shown yourself to be worthy of our blessing. We bless you to do whatever you would like to do in our land.” 

 The research that went into this project is impressive, and Forgive Us serves as an eye-opening introduction to the ways in which the Church supported exploitation, marginalization, and even ethnic cleansing throughout America’s history.  How did notion of “Manifest Destiny” in particular wreak havoc on creation and indigenous people? 

Mae: Manifest Destiny became a commonly held ideology in the early 19th century and was the belief that the United States had a God-given right to aggressively spread values of white civilization across the land mass of the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It wreaked havoc on creation and entire communities of indigenous Americans including the Five Civilized Tribes, who were forcibly removed or annihilated based on the assumption that they were an impediment to God’s purposes being realized. Manifest Destiny justified the conquering of the indigenous peoples of Texas, New Mexico, California, and other parts of the Southwest; and the inclusion of the Oregon territory in the United States. Christians must confess the many ways we have contributed to this tragic history by acknowledging and repenting of our sins. We need to repent of our attitudes about the divine right of conquest, white supremacy, ethnic superiority, Manifest Destiny, the pursuit of wealth, and the brutalization, domination, and murder of thousands of Native people who have lived before us. 

 In addition to featuring sins against creation, indigenous people, African Americans and people of color, women, immigrants, and Jews and Muslims, you featured sins against the LGBTQ community. Was this a controversial decision? Why did you decide to include sins against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the book? 

Troy: When David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons shared their findings of how unchurched young people view the church in Unchristian, one of the most jarring critiques was that the church is, in their words, anti-homosexual. For us to engage the church and the culture in a relevant way, we simply could not avoid engaging the last forty years of hatred toward the LGBTQ community that for far too many has defined the church.

The decision to include this chapter was not controversial for the authors. We all agreed that we simply could not write this book and not address this horrible track record. That said, this was a risky chapter to include in the book for Zondervan, and we are very pleased they agreed to publish the book, including this important chapter of confession and repentance.

What are some practical ways churches can incorporate confession and lament into their worship? 

Soong-Chan: I am currently working on a commentary on the book of Lamentations and in that book I examine the absence of lament in the American church. Three different studies in different denominational traditions show that lament psalms and songs of lament are conspicuously absent in our liturgy, our hymnals, and our worship services. I attribute this disconnect to the tendency of triumphalism and exceptionalism that is strongly present in American Christianity. We jump to celebration rather than seek to stay in places of suffering and lament.

Our first step may be to acknowledge this gap and intentionally seek to introduce lament and confession into our worship life. What songs do we sing and why do we sing them? What psalms are read and towards what purpose? What sermon illustrations do we use? Are we always pointing out a happy ending of a triumphant faith or are we introducing places and stories of suffering that are not so easily resolved. In some cases, it may be a more rigorous examination of our liturgy and a more intentional usage of lament in Scripture reading and songs. How do we introduce stories of pain in our community to our worship? When an event like Ferguson occurs, do we quickly jump to it'll be fine, justice will be served or do we cry out as a community in solidarity with a community that is suffering. What testimonies are being shared? Are they not only the stories of triumph and victory but also stories of ongoing pain and struggle? How are churches intentionally introducing what may be considered places of disruption in order to bring about change?


For more on Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, join the Google Hangout with the authors on Oct. 30 at 7 p.m. ET.

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