Thursday, February 19, 2015

Corporate Sin, Confession, & the Cross

Today I visited the English Department of George Washington University, invited by M.W. Bychowski, who teaches Introduction to English Literature I. In preparation for Medieval Confessional Literature, texts such as John Gower's Confessio Amantis, Book One and Chapter One of Ovid's Metamorpheses, and The Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, I was welcomed to speak about Corporate Sin and Confession from the perspective of a Christian pastor. I happen to not shy away from conversations about sin; in fact, I believe that we talk far too little about sin as Mainline Christians.

Bychowski began the class with the song the "Hanging Tree" from the movie Mockingjay: Part I. The hanging tree symbolizes the imagery of oppressed peoples being lynched for unfounded crimes, and the song ultimately calls for a revolution. Bychowski translated confession as "speaking together" challenging notion of sin as personal, but always inherently corporate, because a society shapes the people, plays a role and responsibility for one another.

When invited, I offered perspective about Ancient Judaism. Following the Law, or Torah, brought the People of God back into right relationship. Our scripture is full of examples of the ways that our faith ancestors turned away form God, and God called prophets to go to the people calling them to repent, to turn back to God. The prophets called for the repentance of the collective, the entire nation, this understanding of corporate sin, the sin of the collective was, unlike our modern understanding of personal sin. Following the Law, people/tribes/families would offer their sacrifice, atoning for their sins. This was a public confession, and was offered on the Sabbath, the first day of the month, festival days, and holy days. We discussed the year of Jubilee, where every 7 years debts were wiped away, symbolizing a confession of love of God and neighbor.

Fast forward to Medieval Europe. Though confession was practiced throughout the early Christian church, penance didn't become a formal practice until the 11th Century, when becoming a sacrament of the Catholic Church. Penance was the act of confession by individuals to the priest for the absolution of sin, which then required an offering of prayers. The move to the confession booth in many ways shifted the understanding of corporate sin to personal. Also the practice of selling of indulgences to the families of the unconfessed deceased became a controversial issue in Medieval Europe, this among other grievances led to a young Catholic bishop to begin questioning the actions of the Catholic Church.

The role of the priest in Confession on top of the selling of indulgences led to the perception of the corruption of the Catholic Church, and so the model of confession among other things became challenged in the Reformation. Catholic bishop Martin Luther called for reform, claiming "the priesthood of all believers," everyone has equal access to God, and therefore individuals can give confession directly to God, both individually and corporately in worship. Liturgically, the Lutheran and Reformed Church integrated the Confession into a corporate style prayer.

As we look to our present world we can can contextualize our understanding of Corporate Sin and Confession, and look to present movements that influence our current understandings of these terms.

In seminary I studied the scholarship of Dr. James Cone. In reading God of the Oppressed, I first discovered Dr. Cone's argument for the ontological blackness of Christ, Jesus' being was bound in solidarity with the oppressed, and he ultimately was strung up on a cross. Dr. Cone also argued that slavery was the U.S. original sin, with over 400 years of Black people being oppressed and lynched, and segregated. In 2012 Dr. James Cone preaching at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in his sermon entitled "The Cross & The Lynching Tree" argues "Despite the obvious similarity between Jesus' death on the cross and the Black people who have been strung up by their necks, relatively few people have looked at the deep similarities between the cross and the lynching tree."

We turned next to the song "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, and talked about the context in which this song was written. The students pointed out the obvious connection between the opening song and this song. Strange Fruit reminds us of the strange imagery of the lynched bodies of Black folks. This song, however, was tied to a specific hate crime when Black men in Indiana during the time of Jim Crow were suspected of a crime they didn't commit, were jailed and then released to an angry mob of over four thousand white folks, many of whom were Christians.

Next, we talked about the #BlackLivesMatter Movement being one of the largest young adult lead movements in the U.S. in the last century, they are the Prophets in our own time. And ended asking them, what would any meaningful act of Confession to the Corporate and Systemic Sin of racism be in our time?

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