Acts 2:37: Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Peter’s answer to those guys’ question – which they ask after hearing about Jesus being the Messiah – is to “repent and be baptized, so that all your sins may be forgiven.”
I listened to Bryan Stevenson on the most recent episode of the On Being podcast during my (very chilly) walk this afternoon. Stevenson – who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and is behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors victims of lynchings – uses language of mercy, repentance, confession and redemption freely and without shame. He talks about America’s history of racial terror as something that we need to REPENT of – and how repentance requires, first, confession.
And this is where, for me, faith traditions become so important, because in the faith tradition I grew up in, you can’t come into the church and say, “Oh, I want salvation and redemption and all the good stuff, but I don’t want to admit to anything bad. I don’t want to have to talk about anything bad that I’ve done.” The preachers will tell you, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to first repent, and you’ve got to confess. And they try to make you understand that the repentance and confession isn’t something you should fear, but something you should embrace, because what it does is open up the possibility of redemption and salvation. And we have a very religious society, where we talk about these concepts on Sundays, on Saturdays, whatever, but we haven’t embraced them. We haven’t employed them in our collective lives. And I think that has to change.– Bryan Stevenson, On Being Podcast
Confession and repentance aren’t outdated, antiquated relics from an irrelevant spirituality – they are embedded parts of what it is to be human. We are flawed beings, who mess up and make mistakes and hurt and harm one another, over and over again. Inflicting hurt – and receiving it – is just part of being a person. Confession and repentance aren’t things to be cast aside, ignored or condescended about; they are, like Stevenson says, practices that “open up the possibility of redemption and salvation.”
Every person who has ever set foot in a 12-step program knows this truth – that there is no healing without honest confession. Every therapist, counselor or pastor who has received confession, be it of the sacramental order or an informal admission, knows the relief that comes when someone is finally able to say, out loud, the thing they’ve been carrying silently for so long.
Reparation, redemption, salvation and healing only come after confession and repentance. We can’t get there any other way. And these deeply human dynamics don’t only operate on the individual level; they are also important in organizations, institutions and national identities. It is important for me – you – each of us to reckon with our own twisted sinfulness, mis-steps and mistakes. But the groups and structures we are a part of also have histories of harm that must be confronted, confessed, and repented.
What would it mean for a congregation to confess and repent? A denomination? A city? A social service agency? A university? A family? What does it look like?
I suspect that a lot of the existential dread some of us are feeling these days has to do with a backlog of confession-worthy history and formation. We don’t know what to do next or how to survive in chaos or who we really are because we have not been invited to reckon honestly with ourselves.
More liturgical traditions have form and pattern for this, something I often long for:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.