The Church and Race: Confession



Two open letters addressing racial injustice were recently published in the Christian Chronicle:

These were accompanied by an article including interviews with some of the authors.

The letters were, of course, inspired by the current controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.

Blue Like Jazz

On the other hand, I can think of one thing we can do today to improve race relations. Donald Miller tells this remarkable (true) story in Blue Like Jazz —

I said we should build a confession booth in the middle of campus and paint a sign on it that said “Confess your sins.” I said this because I knew a lot of people would be sinning, and Christian spirituality begins by confessing our sins and repenting. I also said it as a joke. But Tony thought it was brilliant. …

“Okay, you guys.” Tony gathered everybody’s attention. “Here’s the catch.” He leaned in a little and collected his thoughts. “We are not actually going to accept confessions.” We all looked at him in confusion. He continued, “We are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them.”

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (p. 117-118). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

I was going to tell Tony that I didn’t want to do it when he opened the curtain and said we had our first customer.

“What’s up, man?” Duder sat himself on the chair with a smile on his face. He told me my pipe smelled good.

“Thanks,” I said. I asked him his name, and he said his name was Jake. I shook his hand because I didn’t know what to do, really.

“So, what is this? I’m supposed to tell you all of the juicy gossip I did at Ren Fayre, right?”

Jake said. “No.”

“Okay, then what? What’s the game?” He asked.

“Not really a game. More of a confession thing.”

“You want me to confess my sins, right?”

“No, that’s not what we’re doing, really.”

“What’s the deal, man? What’s with the monk outfit?”

“Well, we are, well, a group of Christians here on campus, you know.”

“I see. Strange place for Christians, but I am listening.”

“Thanks,” I told him. He was being very patient and gracious. “Anyway, there is this group of us, just a few of us who were thinking about the way Christians have sort of wronged people over time. You know, the Crusades, all that stuff . . .”

“Well, I doubt you personally were involved in any of that, man.”

“No, I wasn’t,” I told him. “But the thing is, we are followers of Jesus. We believe that He is God and all, and He represented certain ideas that we have sort of not done a good job at representing. He has asked us to represent Him well, but it can be very hard.”

“I see,” Jake said. “So there is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you.”

“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh. 

“Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.”

“You’re serious.” His laugh turned to something of a straight face.

I told him I was.

He looked at me and told me I didn’t have to.

I told him I did, and I felt very strongly in that moment that I was supposed to tell Jake that I was sorry about everything.

“What are you confessing?” he asked.

I shook my head and looked at the ground. “Everything,” I told him.

“Explain,” he said.

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” I started. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more, you know.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him. He sat there and looked at the floor, then into the fire of a candle.

“It’s really cool what you guys are doing,” he said. “A lot of people need to hear this.”

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (pp. 122-124). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

One of several key statements made by Miller is, “Yeah. We are confessing to you. I mean, I am confessing to you.” It’s really easy to confess the sins of our ancestors. Confessing our own sins — well, that’s much harder, and yet nothing will more surely lead to much-needed change.

I don’t think the church can apologize for our ancestors’ mistakes and suddenly be qualified to heal racial divisions in our communities. Words are cheap. But, of course, true confession, that is, confession of our own sins, can be very powerful.

I think of Bishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. A lot of healing takes place when people confess their sins.

So what if the church avoids the usual cliche, secular solutions — reconciliation talks, speeches, telling unbelievers what to do and how to live their lives — and suppose that we made no demand on the world at all. Suppose that the church were to instead meet with community leaders to confess its present sins, the ones committed by the Christians in the room — not apologizing for what someone else did.

What if we confessed our sins — loudly and publicly? And begged the community to forgive us for not demonstrating a better way, the Jesus way? What if we said we — the people speaking — are sinners, have failed our communities, have let the police, the black community, everyone in town down? What if we shouldered the blame for our sins? What if we admitted that had we lived the gospel we claim to believe our towns would be very different, and much better, places?

What if we confessed our fault because we are called to be a light set on a hilltop, and we have failed? What if we declared that Jesus wants us to live free of racism of every kind and we’ve not worked very hard to honor his teachings even among ourselves? In fact, we’ve sinned by engaging in racial segregation — in the name of Jesus! — long after we knew this to be sinful.

What if we asked for our communities, neighbors, and friends to help us do better?

How would that change things?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to The Church and Race: Confession

  1. Excellent questions!

    When people came to John to be baptized, they came confessing their sins. In the early church, the converts were required to renounce the devil and all his works. How can there be true repentance without sincere, deep confession?

    And too many of us really, really, REALLY do need to repent!

  2. One more thing. Not only is it easy to confess the sins of our ancestors. It is also easy to confess ‘our’ sins as opposed to confessing ‘my’ sins.

  3. laymond says:

    This article reinforces just how “Christians ” today are lacking in knowledge , and understanding the scripture about God. It is very sad. I do believe the death of Jesus did away with our responsibility for other’s sins. Therefore asking for forgiveness for others sins is like praying for the dead. Not something the scriptures recommend , and unless I have misread scripture , the only persons you can ask God (not another human) to forgive is someone who has personally wronged you. And my understanding of that is you first have to forgive that person in your heart, before asking God to do something you, yourself refuse to do. No confessing to a priest , or a person in a box is not the way to God. It is a start down the wrong road, a road that can only lead to confusion, and eventually to hell. We confide in, and pray to, and worship only, God Almighty. That is why Jesus said pray in my name, not pray to me.

  4. Mark says:

    Confession reminds people what constitutes sin. If you look at the text of the al chet, the Yom Kippur confession, it appears vague, but when you study each tort you realize what individual actions could be included in each. One of the Anglican confessions includes “We have left undone those things that we ought to have done; and we have done those that we ought not to have done” meaning that it was a sin NOT to do something, like intervene and speak up.

  5. laymond says:

    Mark said; ““We have left undone those things that we ought to have done; and we have done those that we ought not to have done” meaning that it was a sin NOT to do something, like intervene and speak up.”

    Or maybe, feed the hungry, care for the sick, share with the less fortunate. sometimes speaking up is not enough. I believe it may have been James that said that, not real sure.

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