Scripture readings: the power of confession and forgiveness
Psalm 32:3-5, James 5:16, John 20:23
Almost every religion and all cultures have believed, Richard Rohr says, that “sin and evil are to be punished, and retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world, and usually in the next world too. It’s a system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys, and makes perfect sense to the ego. It is the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, lawyers, and even most churches, which should know better, can do.” p38
Punishing behaviour that we deem to be wrong, evil or sinful makes perfect sense to the ego. It’s called retributive justice and has controlled 99 % of history. The pattern is this:
sin-> punishment ->repentance ->transformation
In churches we might call it Atonement theology.
There is however another pattern, I’ll call it the `Divine Love’ pattern, and that is not the same as Atonement theology. It’s about restorative justice. It’s the kind of revolutionary pattern of Jesus before, during and after the crucifixion. Why else would he say, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
The pattern here is:
Sin – > unconditional love ->transformation ->repentance
It might not transform everyone, and lead them to repentance, but it’s much more likely to transform someone’s attitude and actions than punishment is.
On Thursday, Bernice and I had the opportunity to sit down with the young man who broke into our Thrift Shop last fall. At the time of the incident, as a Board we made it clear that we didn’t want him charged with a criminal offence, but we did want restorative justice… We did want to meet him face to face and let him know who we are and what we do for the community. We also wondered what he could do in a restorative way. We met with this young man and his parole officer who outlined the process of police and court decisions that have taken place. We learned that this young man in now living south of Salmon Arm and has done community service at the Down Town Activity Centre. He’s also enrolled in the Store-front school, a way to complete his grade Twelve, surrounded by positive and encouraging role models. He took full responsibility for his actions and I believe is truly trying to turn his life around. It was a privilege to be witness to this and to respond to him with compassion. That’s restorative justice.
Restorative Justice is what Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was about after the fall of apartheid, where all had to take proper and public responsibility for their mistakes, not for the sake of any punishment, but for the sake of truth and healing. In fact, the healing was the `coming clean’ – speaking the truth, and in the listening, especially to those who had suffered so deeply, and to do this all publicly.
This seems revolutionary and unheard-of in much of human history but is actually totally biblical, evident in the seldom read book of the prophet Ezekiel, where he claims that God will punish the sins of the people, by restoring them, by loving them and keeping the Divine part of the covenant. Ezekiel 16:1-63. This restorative justice is lived out in the life of Jesus as well.
Canada’s own version of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, focussed on our nation’s historic relationship with Indigenous people, including the legacy of residential schools, finished up in December 2015 with 94 calls to action. I looked at it briefly this week, and would encourage you to read it also. It referred often to the United Nations declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which I also briefly skimmed – it contains 46 articles.
There is much healing to be done, but one step we can take as a congregation when we worship is to acknowledge the First Nations people on whose traditional land we now gather. For us that would be the Secwepemc (Shuswap) people.
In the gospel of Thomas, one of those books that didn’t make it into the official Bible, it quotes Jesus as saying, “If you bring forth that which is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring it forth, it will destroy you.” p39
Richard Rohr’s Catholicism shows through when he talks of the sacrament of confession. The concept of `going to confession’ is a bit foreign to me as someone who grew up in the United church , but Rohr says, the official sacrament of reconciliation (confession) was bound by the strictest rules of secrecy, and anonymity, so the confessor would feel absolutely safe and be able to be completely vulnerable.
Reading this, I realized my only information about `Catholic confession’ came from novels and movies, and that never worked out well, or hearing that children would make up sins, so they would have something to confess. This is a far cry from what is supposed to happen.
The power of the confessional relationship, if done well, can allow for profound healing for the confessor, or it can do great damage if the listener cannot be compassionate and nonjudgmental.
I have had the privilege of doing a fifth step with a number of people from A.A. over the years. The level of vulnerability is huge – especially when you have been so deeply hurt that that you have drowned yourself in addictions. To listen is indeed a privilege, and a position where you have to be absolutely trust- worthy.
You may be relieved to know that I am not going to ask you to turn to your neighbour and admit the exact nature of your wrongs (sins) today. But I will leave you with the following quote and question to ponder this week: “Forgiveness is to let go of our hope for a different or better past.” p.48-49
And the question: How can I begin to stop replaying hurtful memories?
As we end this part of worship today, focussing on the difficult and essential step of confession, I want to bring it home with Leonard Cohen’s beautiful and troubling masterpiece – Hallelujah.
I first heard Leonard Cohen’s `Hallelujah’ on a cassette tape, in a car, on the streets of Vancouver. It’s a good thing, I wasn’t driving. My friend Lynne was, and she knew that my life was `kind of in the toilet’ at that time. “I think you need to hear this”, she said. I’m so glad I did. Cohen’s Hallelujah is a prayer of confession. But it’s also a story of restorative justice.
I think that is why it resonates with so many people. This is the kind of justice our souls yearn for. Hallelujah.