Holy Week reflection: Toward a humble, repentant church

A Holy Week reflection on becoming a church of confession rather than judgment. 

By David Gushee

Follow David: @dpgushee

Holy Week converges for me with the conclusion of a semester in which I have been teaching seminar courses about the Holocaust and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This week the brilliant Bonhoeffer scholar Jennifer McBride visited to talk about the implications of Bonhoeffer’s ethics for Christian public witness today. Her book, The Church for the World, is essential reading.

I write also in the sour backwash of l’affaire World Vision

The deadly hate-based shooting Sunday outside the Kansas City Jewish center is on my heart. It happened just before Passover, which started Monday night. 

For Palm Sunday I selected John 13 as my teaching text at church.

All fodder for these Holy Week musings.

Jesus takes up the towel for his faithless disciples

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1b).

At the beginning of John 13 we learn that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” So what he decided to do with his knowledge was interrupt this last supper with the 12 to grab a towel and wash their dirty feet. He knelt before them, one by one. One by one, he washed their feet in the basin. One by one, he dried their feet with his towel.

Even before the Apostle Peter interrupted with his usual blustery protests, Jesus knew exactly who these men were. His beloved 12, in whom he had invested the bulk of his time during his earthly ministry, would all fail him.

And then there was Judas. Among those whom Jesus washed was his very betrayer. Jesus knelt down before Judas. He took his feet into his hands. He rinsed them. He dried them. I imagine he looked into Judas’ eyes, with love. And very soon the clean-footed Judas walked from the room to betray to death his Master and Lord.  

Apostolic succession, indeed.

Jennifer McBride: “A theology of public witness based on Bonhoeffer’s thought must address how the church may be at once a sinful body and a revelation of Christ. ... Christ is at once glorified and humiliated through the church” (119-120).

The most intimate followers of Jesus received the most frequent exposure to his example, teachings and love, but this did not prevent them from becoming fugitives, deniers or betrayers of their own very Lord.

A church of judgment — or confession?

Two thousand years later, the church is no freer from sin than its earliest forebears. Nor are we any more likely to face our sins head-on, though we will happily discuss what we perceive to be the sins of others. And so Bonhoeffer warns us:

“Confession of guilt happens without a sidelong glance at others who are also guilty. This confession is strictly exclusive in that it takes all guilt upon itself. When one calculates and weighs things, an unfruitful self-righteous morality takes the place of confessing guilt face-to-face with the figure of Christ. ... Looking on [the] grace of Christ frees us completely from looking on the guilt of others and brings Christians to fall on their knees before Christ with the confession: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” (Ethics, 136)

Bonhoeffer appears to have been convinced that Christians are most dangerous when we think ourselves most virtuous. As soon as we view ourselves, in McBride’s terms, as the morally knowledgeable among the obtuse, the virtuous among sinners, the standard-bearers for morality in a sinful world, then we are the furthest from Christ. He stood in solidarity with humble sinners and bore our sin. He never identified with the standard-bearers for God and morality. And thus he faced their judgment too. 

Not only does Christian self-righteousness not conform to the pattern of Christ, it also sets us up for particularly deserved scorn when we so obviously sin against God and neighbor, as in the Holocaust. That was when a continent full of baptized Christians allowed six million of their Jewish neighbors to be plucked from among them and murdered — murdered, it must be added, mainly by other baptized Christians serving the Nazi state. (Christians generally manage not to remember the Holocaust in this way, as very much a Christian failure, but it is all too accurate.) It happened only 70 years ago.

Tens of thousands of gays were also arrested, imprisoned, abused, tortured and sometimes murdered, in that same era, with the same pattern of Christian involvement, complicity, indifference and silence — and some of the same echoes down to our present day.

The church could repent its sins against our marginalized ones every day for a thousand years and it would not be enough. 

McBride: “An honest evaluation of Christian witness ... must ... admit that the church’s vast, visible failures are a stumbling block for many people who might otherwise be drawn into the community of faith. The church as revelation is hidden in humiliation.” (McBride, 123)

Bonhoeffer suggests that setting ourselves up as judge of good and evil is the particular temptation of the religious. We want to be “for God” in the world, which ironically makes us enemies of God. This is a problem that goes back to the Garden, when Adam and Eve wanted the knowledge of good and evil. Bonhoeffer writes: “You believed that you knew the truth, you possessed it ... and in that way you have made yourself God. You have robbed God of [God’s] truth, and from God’s perspective it became a lie.”

Bonhoeffer: “Should a few super-righteous people ... try to prove that not the church but all others are guilty? Would a few churchmen…presuming to be called on as judges of the world, proceed to weigh the mass of guilt ... and distribute it accordingly?” (Ethics, 141)

Jesus warned about not assuming God’s place as judge (Mt 7:1-5). Bonhoeffer was convinced he really meant it. And so:

McBride: “The church ... cannot simultaneously be both a confessor and a judge of guilt; genuine confession of sin and acceptance of guilt constitutes obedient conformation to Christ and communion with God.” (McBride, 134)

But we don’t confess. We are too busy judging. Sometimes we judge the world, until the world won’t listen anymore. Then we judge other Christians, until we pummel them into submission or drive them, and their outraged friends and family members, right out of the church. 

McBride proposes that the proper form of the church’s public presence in society is always confession and repentance, not pride and assertion of Christian righteousness. Following Bonhoeffer, she argues that willingness to acknowledge our guilt and our complicity with evil, rather than to focus on the wrongs we think we see in others, is precisely what Jesus did, and therefore what we must do to conform with Christ.

A humble, repentant church

So, maybe:

A humble, repentant church would not set itself up as judge, but instead repent for its own historic and contemporary sins against our God and our defenseless neighbors. That should give us plenty to do for a long while. Maybe we could be quiet in the meantime. 

A humble, repentant church would take up the towel of foot washing rather than the pointed finger of judgment. 

A humble, repentant church would remember that just before his Cross, Jesus said at that same dramatic supper:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Humility. Service. Repentance. Solidarity. Love. The true tests of Christian discipleship. 

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