The 1789 U.S. Book of Common Prayer contains this “General Confession, to be said by the whole congregation, after the Minister, all kneeling”:
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things we ought to have done; We have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.
But thou O Lord have mercy upon us, miserable offenders Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
These days, the arcane language of that 18th-century prayer becomes agonizingly relevant, challenging the whole congregation of American Christians – Catholic/Protestant, Liberal/Fundamentalist, Mainline/Evangelical – to confess our faults as fast and furiously as possible. Our sins have “found us out.” Wrongs swept under the ecclesiastical carpet or committed inside the church’s dark corners have gone public, requiring us to move beyond casual piety to encounter the pain, depth and gift of repentance.
“The difference between apology and repentance is not lost on the abused.”
Purporting to be a “communion of saints,” we are compelled to acknowledge that we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done. In an ever-expanding array of sinful situations there is no health in us. Apologies, whether public or private, are but the beginning of the long process of repentance and atonement that lies ahead.
But first we must face up to the contemporary implications of what the old revival preachers would have called our considerable “sin list,” including:
- The slavery-and-Christianity-related origins of numerous schools of higher education such as Georgetown, Wake Forest, Furman and Baylor Universities, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, all now acknowledging and exploring their foundational links to slave-holding, Lost Cause-promoting ideologies, faculty, alumni and donors.
- The increasing number of schools whose yearbooks and other public documents reveal blackface photos and other racist pictorials, many appearing well into the 20th century. (The Winston-Salem Journal recently published a photo from the 1979 Howler yearbook showing two white Wake Forest students in blackface, at a time when the university was still in relationship with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)
- In a recent three-part investigative series, the Houston Chronicle documented the sexual abuse of more than 700 persons by Southern Baptist church leaders, some 220 of whom are now incarcerated for, or have pled guilty to, abuse.
- In a similar series published in December 2018, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram examined sexual abuse within a group of congregations identified as Independent Baptists.
- The seemingly endless cycle of sexual abuse revelations within American Catholicism continued with the recent “de-frocking” of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former Archbishop of Washington, D.C. In a Feb. 19 blog on Life Site, a Catholic online periodical, the writer noted the Cardinal had been “laicized,” thereby losing his priestly status. She added, “It remains to be seen, however, whether the disgraced former cardinal is at all repentant for the untold damage caused by his serial sexual predation of young boys, seminarians, and priests over decades.”
- Investigations of abuse in Roman Catholic and Baptist communions confirmed the fact that the abusing ministers were often protected or unreported by their ecclesial overseers, a glaring reality among the elaborately hierarchical Catholics and the congregationally autonomous Baptists. Abused women and men were frequently ignored, blamed or urged to “forgive.”
In Wishful Thinking (1973), Frederick Buechner says that “to repent is to come to your senses.” That’s a good start. Catholic theologian Karl Rahner suggests that penance is less “an isolated action” than “a basic attitude determining the whole of Christian existence . . . a basic metanoia (conversion to God) continually renewed.” We’re all and always learning repentance.
“Redemptive responses to church history’s victims must be initiated with new energy and impact, with multifaceted reparations offered, whether required by law or not.”
In a Jan. 3 essay published by Baptist News Global, Baptist pastor and courtroom judge Wendell Griffen addresses the slavery-related origins of Southern Seminary by distinguishing “between remorse (regret about sinfulness) and repentance (changing from sinful ways and thinking to righteous ways and thinking). Remorsefulness, however sincerely and openly expressed, does not require a commitment to change.”
Griffen cites Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19, noting that the tax collector, on welcoming Jesus into his home and heart repents by confessing: “Here and now, sir, I give half my possessions to charity; and if I have cheated anyone, I am ready to repay. . .”
The difference between apology and repentance is not lost on the abused. In his excellent book, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, Leon Litwack reproduces an 1865 post-Appomattox letter from ex-slave Jourdan Anderson, addressed to “My Old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee,” in response to his former master’s invitation to return and work for his former master. Anderson asserts that he and his wife, Mandy, “have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship for the future.” The couple calculated a sum of $11,680, noting: “If you fail to pay for us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future.”
“With repentance, there is no statute of limitations.”
That sentence delineates what is at stake in the multiple, sinful crises confronting American churches. Without significant repentance-response to the past, individuals inside and outside the church may “have little faith” in its promises for the future. Of course, preventative policies must be established and adhered to, but redemptive responses to church history’s victims must also be initiated with new energy and impact, with multifaceted reparations offered, whether required by law or not. With repentance, there is no statute of limitations.
In his amazing epistle, freed-slave Jourdan Anderson demands what the gospel calls “fruits of repentance” from his former oppressor whose mere apology was insufficient. The letter concludes with a P.S. drenched in irony: “Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”
Repentance remains dangerous. Freedom, too.