Confessing Complicity in Systemic Sin

Why do I repent if it’s not my fault?

For a year after we married, my husband and I attended an Anglican church. It was the first time I’d encountered liturgy on a weekly basis, learning its rhythms.

Among those rhythms is corporate confession. “Merciful God,” we prayed,

We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

I learned to appreciate this weekly prompt of self-scrutiny, a practice that comes to mind more often as many American Christians, my congregation included, seek to “confess” or “repent” of our “complicity” in the “corporate sin” of racism. Don’t let quotation marks scare you, just notice the language we’re employing. This column is about our lexicon of confession.

Confession of sin, while necessary for Christians (1 John 1:8-10), does not come naturally to us. Our sin itself can ward us off—pride never likes to admit a wrong; wrath won’t want to be calmed or regretted—and many Christian traditions don’t consistently (if at all) train us in habits of confession to each other (James 5:16). Growing up in nondenominational churches, I was taught to confess my sin in my daily prayer, but there was no accountability. No one really knew whether I’d confessed while praying silently or, if I had, whether it had followed any meaningful examen. Too often it had not.

Confessing together is a more difficult matter still and the occasion of our first pair of definitions:

Corporate confession of sin is speaking together to confess our individual transgressions. The confession …

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