If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.… 1 John 1:8-9This is a basic principle of Christianity: that we as human beings are prone to sin and error and should admit as much. "Confession is good for the soul," the old saying goes, though our natural inclination is to deny error and not admit to wrongdoing. This inclination seems especially prominent in politics, as this Washington Post article details:
No one likes to admit that they made a mistake. We have an ingrained reticence to do so, a near-primal response that little kids learn probably before they can speak. Admit your mistake, get punished. Don't, and maybe you can wiggle your way out of it.
If your job involves being judged and evaluated by people, that instinct is almost certainly worse. And if your job involves being evaluated and you have a group of people committed to defending you on an ideological basis no matter what you say, admitting error becomes all but unthinkable.Christian grace, on the other hand, is all about the freedom to admit wrong in ourselves and accept others in spite of their faults, knowing that God loves and forgives and wants us to do the same. And I think this goes not just for our individual sins and errors, but for group ones too. Humans don't just sin individually. We sin as groups-- as nations, as communities, and yes, even as churches and religious communities.
So why are so many of us Christians involved in vigorous denial of any such thing? Why are we more interested in defending ourselves than examining ourselves? And why, when someone does point out how our group sins or how we might have participated in sin in the past or present, do we attack that person as if the only real wrong was the perceived insult to us?
The main thing that's bothering me is the reaction of prominent Christians against President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he said:
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?The response to this has been really troubling, as detailed in this Slate article, as prominent Republicans and conservative commentators (largely professing Christians) "reject the suggestion that Christianity has anything to apologize for." They claim that the Crusades were justified and were the fault of the Muslims (the same article claims the Church had "almost nothing to do with the Inquisition"). They claim that Jim Crow laws were over thousands of years ago instead of being part of reality for the Baby-boomer generation. They claim that Obama was wrong to claim Christians have any responsibility for racism. And they accuse the President of not being a real Christian because he would dare admit that yes, Christians and Christian communities have sinned.
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
And yet it's the person they're claiming isn't a real Christian who is following the Christian principles of humility and confession which they seem to have lost sight of. I can't help thinking that politics are partly to blame. I'm not saying Christians shouldn't get involved in politics or shouldn't vote their consciences-- but that's different from practically turning Christianity into a political movement. And when we do that, it's not surprising that we end up acting according to political "admit no wrong" wisdom. However, President Obama is a politician and a Christian, and this time (possibly because he's not part of that movement) he got it right. It's too bad that his Republican Christian opponents can't see wisdom when it comes from someone on the other team.
I think, actually, that defensiveness against any admission of racism is actually one of our biggest problems even today.
Racism is still very much a part of our reality today in America, and most, if not all, of us white people have imbibed racist attitudes to some extent just by being born, growing up and living here. And yet we have also been taught to believe racism is some archaic evil from the past-- so what upsets us most is the idea that someone might think we're racist in some way, or call us a "racist" because of something we said or did. The Agabond blog calls it "the R-Word":
The r-word is the word“racist”. It is in effect the n-word for white people:they get upset when you call them that and lose all sense of reason. Even on the Internet it pretty much ends any fruitful talk about race. . . Two things are going on here:
1. Many whites seem to think “racist” means joining the Ku Klux Klan, flying the Confederate flag, using the n-word, stuff like that.The old Jim Crow sort of racism that was common in America before 1970. Most white Americans born since then are colour-blind racists. It is this subtler racism that most people of colour have in mind when they use the word “racist”.
2. White Americans have a self-image of themselves as fair and just, of not being racist. So when you say they are racist it threatens their self-image. That is why they get so upset.
But that self-image stands in the way of any further progress.
It is like the kind of patriotism where people feel threatened when you say anything bad about their country. It is a false patriotism that stands in the way of making their country better.It's interesting to me that Agabond equates the same two things I've been talking about-- denial of racism with do-no-wrong Christian patriotism-- because I think they're both rooted in the same thing. We're being "conformed to this world," as Romans 12:2 says. We're following our natural, human desire to exalt ourselves and our causes, and our natural unwillingness to admit to wrongdoing. But Christ would have us humble ourselves, be assured of grace, and let go of our fear of being found in the wrong.
Anyway, it seems to me that I, as a white person, can't really understand what black people go through as well as they do themselves, and certainly not without listening to their side of things. But when I first started reading Agabond's blogsite, I had to quell my defensiveness and my sense of injury at this word "racist," and learn to say, "God's grace is with me, even if I'm racist in some way and don't know it-- so am I? Because God can help me change, but only if I admit the problem!"
The fact is that being so defensive against the word "racist" and "racism" is keeping us from seeing where we might need to confess and repent. And this isn't the Christian way to live.
Dr. Beverly Tatum on the By Their Strange Fruit Website puts it so well:
I consider myself a racist in the same way that I consider myself a sinner in need of forgiveness (see post Basically Good). People bristle at both characterizations (“I’m a generally good person, I don’t need Jesus”; “I’m not a racist, I’m color blind”). But to me, these terms simply identify the latent issues that I know I still have to work on, which is better than pretending the issues aren't there at all.As Christians, we ought to be the first to admit that Christians have done (and still do) wrong. We ought to be the first to examine ourselves, the first to confess our errors and faults, and the errors and faults of our group, our nation, our community. The fact is that many times our faults are visible to the observing world anyway-- and when we act blind to them, we only come across as hypocrites.
Gregg Easterbrook in a 2011 Reuter's editorial encapsulates what most people probably really think when we do that:
Just as lying about what you did may be worse than what you did, refusing to admit an error may be worse than the error itself.
All human beings occasionally are wrong — trust me, I’ve had plenty of experience! Honest admission of error makes a person upright and sympathetic. Refusing to admit error, by contrast, suggests deviousness or even megalomania.We aren't enhancing either our own reputations, or God's, when we refuse to even open our eyes to our wrongs, much less confess and apologize. And we're not doing Christianity any good by pressing it into the service of a political agenda.
It's just making our Christianity look less and less Christian.