Social Issues

my sin is not just my own: systemic injustice and communal repentance

I didn’t understand repentance until I became a liberal.

I’d been raised a Christian, had heard sermons calling for me to repent of my sin every other week, but until I’d abandoned conservatism I never grasped the grotesque beauty and compelling horror of true repentance.

As a child and teenager I thought of repentance in strictly personal, and individual, terms– and mostly in the context of that first salvific event when I was eleven. I’d been really sorry for my sin, for all the times I’d gotten mad at my sister or disobeyed my parents, and that was that, honestly. Oh, I’d continue to be haunted for all the other sins I’d commit for the next fifteen years, but it was all so self-centered. There was some obligatory guilt about hurting people’s feelings, of course, but any time I “repented” it was to assure myself I wasn’t going to burn in hell because Jesus had already forgiven me, or I was trying to make sure I woudln’t be struck down when I took communion.

I viewed sin and repentance this way because individualism is at the heart of conservative evangelicalism. They have a personal relationship with Jesus, not a silly communal religion. They believe in personal responsibility. They eschew concepts like “it takes a village” and– where I grew up– heaped disdain on other cultures that prioritized community over the needs of the individual. This bleeds into the political of course, birthing ideas like “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “the self-made man.”

This is one of the ways I believe that evangelicalism is culturally American more than it is culturally Christian. My country is thoroughly saturated by the notion that we individually contribute to societies, that we have individual rights and freedoms. Conversely, most of us believe to our core that things like racism, misogyny, and homophobia are individual problems. If someone cracks a racist joke, no one needs to bother correcting him, because being racist is his problem, not theirs.

Which is why I didn’t truly understand what repentance means until I became a liberal and started reading things by people like Audre Lorde and bell hooks. When I encountered “without justice there can be no love” and “without community there is no liberation,” it finally clicked. I am a member of a system. That system is built on white supremacy and misogyny, and it’s not self-perpetuating. It’s continued by us communally, subconsciously, unconsciously, and actively participating in it. It’s the water we swim in.

It’s hard fighting this current. But every moment when we’re not fighting it, when we let that joke or comment slide, or when we hold onto our purses just a little bit tighter, or when we frown in disapproval at the “urban” teenager … we embrace the whole abusive system that keeps us all in place. For many of us, that system is capable of giving us power when we capitulate to it. I could embrace ageism and start babbling about those entitled millennials who don’t have a decent work ethic– I’d be amply rewarded for it with articles in GQ. I could write long screeds against feminism and be hailed a hero on Return of the Kings. I could start lecturing on complementarianism and be welcomed by John Piper with open arms. I could send out a racist tweet and get “FINALLY someone says it” from a few hundred people.

That is what we have to repent of. We must “turn from evil, and turn to do good.” We must repent of our lust for power, control, stability, and earthly rewards. And, we must do it together. I can fight against systemic injustice individually– as we all should– but one voice crying in the wilderness can only accomplish so much.

All through the Old Testament the prophets called for Israel and Judah– as nations— to repent. The prophets profoundly understood something we’ve lost. They knew that while there are a few righteous men scattered about the countryside, sin is a matter of culture as much as it is a matter of the heart. Greed lives in the bellies of all of us, as does the desire to feel like we earned the power and position we have, that we have a right to it. The prophets knew better, and tried to tell us so. And Paul tried to tell us again:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts …

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus … For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do …

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

~from Ephesians 2 and 6

But, I think, that communal repentance might be too much for many of our churches. I could not even begin to imagine the pastor of my last traditional church leading us in a congregation-wide confession of our sins. We built and sustain the beast together, but saying the words:

“We confess the sin of racism and the hatred toward people of color we have created”


“We repent of the violence against women we have caused with our words, beliefs, and inaction”

… seems incomprehensible for any of the churches I’ve attended.

It shouldn’t be that way. Confession is good for the soul, and it shouldn’t be limited to a private accountability partner. Forgive us, for we have sinned should be a principle part of each service, and it should be accompanied by the public commitment to turn away from evil and toward doing good.

Artwork by Dani Kelley (<– pssst, you can buy today’s header on a shirt!)
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  • Sheila Warner

    Well, first of all, each Catholic mass starts with communal repentance. In fact, three times the priest or deacon will enumerate a communal sin, and we respond with ‘Lord/Christ have mercy.” So, there’s that. My problem is that American Christianity, including Catholicism, still tends to focus on individual sin, and I don’t recall ever being instructed by any clergy member in any church I attended, Catholic or Protestant, that systemic injustice is a reality that we must address. Maybe it’s because I only attended white churches. I don’t know. I do know that my own awakening began with the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson. I was genuinely shocked at how poorly minorities were treated by the powers in charge. Not just the police, but the public policies that enabled the police to openly discriminate. It changed my entire worldview. I don’t need a middle man, such as a god, to help me understand that I have not been properly taught about the importance of communal justice. That opinion is reinforced as I watch the GOP candidates espouse their faith while continuing to insist on policies that hurt people. It’s disgusting.

    • Exactly– without the accompanying instruction on the systemic nature of injustice, simply saying “Christ have mercy” isn’t going to get you far.

      • Sheila Warner

        I’m glad you saw my bigger point. This was a good post.

      • Northwoods Dan

        I’m going to caution about one thing here. In my church, we do communal prayer. I think that the two examples you gave are perfect examples of good communal prayers. They are specific enough to mean something but brief enough so that each person can look at how they have been a participant in such actions or inactions. However, if you get too far into instruction, you will get disagreement on specifics, even among liberally minded people. I think the best practice is for the prayers to be made followed by a period for silence and reflection. I think that it is best to then let each individual ponder these things and explore them further. If the church gives accompanying instruction, I am afraid that it will too often result in the focus moving away from the corporate sin and will redirect the focus in a way where people will tend to excuse and justify their “innocence”.

        • Northwoods Dan

          Sorry, I meant communal confession, not communal prayer.

    • Side rant – I hate the changes the Mass that went through a few years ago. Most relevant to the “community” element – during the Creed we now say “I believe” instead of “We believe.” The whole point of saying the Creed together during our community ritual prayer is that we believe it. And if we didn’t believe it, then we wouldn’t be there in the first place.

      /end rant

      • Sheila Warner

        It’s those stupid stuck in the past Latin-language-only Catholics who made a stink about how the word “Credo” was translated into English that started it all. Pope JP II ex-communicated the SSPX leaders, but the SFFP swore fidelity to the Pope, and they had Benedict XVI eating out of their hands. He granted the indulgence to let the 1962 Missal to be promulgated. It was only a matter of time before the insistence of the word “Credo” in the Latin was changed. Also, using the word “consubstamtial” instead of “the same being as the Father”. Once again a lunatic fringe ruined it for everyone else.

        • Lunatic fringe?! How dare you! Surely you mean the changes that “reclaimed the sacredness that was lost” … or some such.

          /sarcasm off

  • Northwoods Dan

    Communal confession and repentance is a common in some churches, although not generally in evangelical churches from my past experience. I’m fortunate to belong to a church where words very much like you stated have been spoken. It freaked me out when I started there because it was new to me. By no means do I think we do a great job of remembering what we have said on Sunday morning but I at least am glad we have some recognition of confession that goes beyond individual acts and includes corporate/community behavior.

  • kittehonmylap

    The weekly (or most-weeks-ly) confession of sin in the Episcopalian church is something I’ve really come to love. The weekly one is pretty short and very general (both racism and sexism do fall under “not loving our neighbors as ourselves” but more specificity is needed) but the confession we did on Ash Wednesday had some lines like that. Episcopalians seem to be much more comfortable with communal sin than evangelicals are.

    • Anna

      We sometimes get more specific with our confessions at our Anglican (Canadian) church. Repenting of misusing our planet’s resources, contributing to racism, etc. There’s been a lot of dialogue recently about the church’s role in abusing the First Nations peoples of Canada, particularly the church’s involvement in the residential schools, and how to repent of that. Our homily last week was given by a First Nations woman whose parents and grandparents had been sent to the residential schools. She’s been in the process of searching and rediscovering their cultural and spiritual heritage and she shared about that. It was beautiful, but achingly sad, because what happened to her people was so horribly wrong.

  • nelson_keener

    I’m a Liberty Univ Grad from early years and have been an Episcopalian now for than 20 years. It took me many years to learn and understand the (orthodox/ classic/ traditional) Christian faith that you, Samantha, are catching on to so quickly.

    Evangelicals and fundamentalists seem to miss that Christianity is about community and corporate worship. My priest once reminded us that none of us can be a Christian by ourselves. Conservatives have not internalized Jesus’s teaching that every human being on earth is both sister/brother and neighbor. A couple years ago we attended the ordination of my wife’s nephew in a C&MA church. It dawned on me as I was listening to the sermon how self-centered it was; all the preaching was to the person in the pew. Much of Christian radio bible teaching/preaching, whether David Jeremiah, Nancy DeMoss or James McDonald (Vertical Church), is directed at the person/listener.

  • nelson_keener

    The Deacon or Celebrant says….Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.
    Silence may be kept. Minister and People…

    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. BCP p. 352

    • nelson_keener

      The 2-page prayer of confession for Ash Wednesday is probably the most comprehensive when it comes to confession, both corporate and personal,.

  • I attend a 99.9% white church in one of the whitest states in the US. And yes, it’s pastored by white people. I have not ONCE heard anything from behind the pulpit about systemic oppression or the concept of various forms of bigotry and oppression as strongholds that need to be torn down, or the acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement as a prophetic voice, or any of that. I hear way more hurtful, bigoted rhetoric. And stuff about personal responsibility and whatnot.

    Unfortunately, because of complicated personal reasons, I’m not in a position where I can leave and look for another faith community.

  • oe_leiderhosen

    YES. This is so important. I’m only just realizing it this year.

    As a queer Christian woman who likes sex and has some unorthodox spiritual practices, I have a hard time taking the concept of “sin” seriously in its traditional definition. Which is a problem, because part of being a Christian is taking sin seriously. This, what you’re writing about, is how I can actually do that.

  • nelson_keener

    Another essential reason to address and confess corporate sin as a body of believers (congregation)… It let’s none of us, including clergy, off the hook for being responsible for global warming, racism, injustice and on and on. It is humbling and self-leveling…none of us is less sinful or more sinful than the other. Which means i have no right to judge anyone for their sins or their sinfulness