Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Considering the Grammar of Confession

The Institute of Religion and Democracy (IRD) is all upset again (still) – this time about a confessional letter, read at a World Council of Churches (WCC) assembly. The letter asks God for forgiveness for the United States’ policies on war, the environment, and poverty.

In an email press release, IRD president Alan Wisdom complained, “This penitence is false. These church leaders are not confessing their own sins; they are trying to confess the sins of George W. Bush, who never asked them to perform that service for him. Nor did the members of their own churches ask them to make this kind of statement on their behalf. This letter is a blatant political abuse of the sacred Christian rite of confession.” Later, he said, “Of course, confession of sin is a duty for all Christians, but it is our own sins that we should confess – not the sins for which we wish to fault our political opponents.” (Emphasis mine.)

So, the IRD is upset because someone is trying to confess other people’s sins on their behalf. Or are they actually upset because the alleged sins being confessed are not something they consider to be a sin? Either way, the IRD has no trouble at all calling some behavior sin, even when it is not their own. Granted, I have never heard the IRD offer to actually confess another person’s sin on their behalf, but they have no problems whatsoever in naming other people’s sins for them.

So the theological questions at hand are these:

“Who has the right to name and then to confess sins, the sinner or another person?”
“What is the role of corporate confession of sin, and in what context should it be used?”
“Do we all have to agree that an act is sinful in order for it to be sinful, especially the sinner involved? Or is it enough for just a percentage of people to name something is a sin for it to be one?”

These big questions can be simplified into this one:

“What pronoun should be used in confession, ‘I,’ ‘we,’ ‘you,’ or ‘they’”?

I tend to stick pretty much with the first person and not so much with the second and third. When I use a first person pronoun, I am actually confessing. Using second or third person seems more like condemning. The WCC letter mentioned above uses all first person pronouns, and is as such a proper confession, whether the IRD likes it or not.

Later, I’ll write a little bit about issues that arise in using singular pronouns versus plural. (Don’t you just love grammar? :)


EyeRytStuf said...

I do love Grammar! But one time, Mom had to work and I was sick, so Grammar had to babysit me, and she kept asking me if I liked green beans. It was very confusing, and I later figured out that was just the early stages of her Alzheimers.

On a serious note, I love this post. And I'm a fan of this apology letter thing.

Donna said...

I do love grammar, too. And a good pun! I'm afraid I'm less affectionate about the IRD.

Aren't the citizens of a democracy responsible for what is done in their names? It seems to me to be quite appropriate to confess our complicity in a policy of preemptive war and economic injustice. I worry that too many folks just throw up their hands and pretend that it's just "those folks in Washington" behaving badly.

Good post, Andy,


John said...

I think that it is important to remember that the confession of sin is a holy act -- somber and serious. When we bow before God to pray, we should think of nothing else but his majesty and our utter lack thereof.

To make prayer, such as a confession of sin, contain a subtext attacking another person is to misuse and debauch the sacramental nature of the act.

If a person wishes to apologize before God as an American or a Christian for what others have done in the name of that particular identity, let it be done in private between that individual and God.

EyeRytStuf said...

Hey, I like where we're going with this. ALL spiritual stuff should be done in private! I don't know what we'll use the empty churches for, but we'll save that for another discussion.

Speaking of confessing our complicity, I read a Tom Tomorrow cartoon years ago with the point along the lines that if only one innocent person falls victim to the death penalty, we're all guilty of murder.

Just a thought. Didn't mean to swing that far off topic.

rev. todd said...

It seems like if we benefit from a racist, sexist, violent, etc. society and if we are not changing it... we are very guilty and there is certainly some power and validity in confessing sins publicly when they are public sins.