In his book, Death On A Friday Afternoon, John Neuhaus says, “We could not bear to live in a world where wrong was taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world we—what we do and what we are—would make no difference. Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence. God could not simply decide not to count, without declaring that we do not count. So spare me the sentimental love that tells me that what I do and what I am does not matter. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing matters. If bad things don’t matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters, and the meaning of everything lies shattered on the floor—and life becomes an obscene joke. “We make small ourselves when we make small our sins.”
All of us would say amen to this powerful statement about the connection between sin and consequences—the fact is that “God could not simply decide not to count without declaring that we do not count.” However, the really significant thing is that many of us, including Neuhaus, no longer simply see sin as a personal and private issue. A new appreciation of the truth of corporate personality and human solidarity have made us sensitive to structural sin and the evil that is systemic and embedded in the institutions of which we are a part. And of course, this includes not only the institutions and issues of the day, but the sins of our forefathers and past institutions that still have consequences these many years later.
William Falkner said that “the past is not dead, it is not even past” and many of us who have friends who are black, native Americans, Jews, Palestinians, or from other marginalized groups, know that they live daily in the reality of Falkner’s statement.
For this reason it is very encouraging that identificational repentance which highlights our responsibility (when prompted by the Holy Spirit) to something about the sins of our fathers, is now becoming mainstream, and is no longer just an activity of charismatics in the global prayer movement.
As an example (to take just one of many) would be when the southern baptist convention, at the end of last year, publicly repudiated its pro-abortion resolutions of many years ago, and asked the forgiveness from the minority in the denomination that had held fast to the pro-life position over the years.
However, of even greater significance, has been the statements of John Paul II in recent years about what he calls the purification of memories, which is his description of what many of us call identificational repentance. He has repeatedly urged leaders in his church to act on this as and when they can.
A moving example of the purification of memories is the actions of the bishops of the Catholic Church in Africa when they met recently in Senegal. I will quote Neuhaus again in the January edition of the journal, First Things:
“The bishops of the Catholic church in Africa, meeting on Senegal’s notorious Goree Island where slaves were shipped off to the New World held a ceremony of repentance and forgiveness for the role of Africans in the slave trade. The report of the bishop says, “the trade of blacks is one of the most odious acts in human history because of its dimensions and the human disasters it caused and because of the mentalities and behaviors that allowed them. Among these mentalities and behaviors, we, for our part, include in the first place, the mentalities and behaviors of ourselves for blacks. Neuhaus continues, “I am not aware of any similar statement made by Africans. To be sure the complicity of Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade came about through white trafficers meeting a white demand for slaves. But the trade could not have been sustained without the cooperation of what Archbishop Sarr of Senegal called Africans who sold their brothers. The action on the island of Gorree underscores our human solidarity in both sin and grace and it underscores the truth that reconciliation begins with honesty, and honesty is made possible by the promise of forgiveness.” For black African leaders in a Third World nation to be taking a lead in acknowledging before God the evils of slavery is both humbling and should b e a huge encouragement to us all.
On a lighter note, I will close with a description by Neuhaus in the same edition of First Things concerning an act of cannibalism that took place in Fiji 136 years ago. “The ‘purification of memories’ for which john Paul II has repeatedly called is catching on all over. In Fiji, villages wept as they apologized to the descendants of a British missionary, the Rev. Thomas Baker, whom their ancestors ate 136 years ago. The ceremony of reconciliation included the slaughter of a cow and a gift of 100 whale teeth to the Rev. Baker’s descendants. At the end of the ceremony the village chief embraced the British visitors. He is the descendant of the chief who cooked the missionary.” Neuhaus continues, “I don’t know if the Pope would approve of the slaughter of the cow, and the save-the-whale people would probably not be so understanding about the teeth. The great question is, if the descendants of the Rev. Thomas Baker could be reconciled with the Figians whose ancestors had him for supper, why can’t there be peace in the Middle East? Answer me that.”
I don’t have an answer for Neuhaus, but the seriousness with which so many in the church from all traditions are taking the sins of our fathers that continue to fester and hold back the movement of the Holy Spirit that we are all praying for should be an encouragement from the Lord to us all.