Christians of the United States join with many others undergoing a liberation of conscience regarding the black experience in America—the freedom to own where we have been wrong. The hatred and harm perpetrated on the black community by America’s white majority is erupting as both a national shame and a national hope of making things right. It is sad that the only tool people have to right wrongs is the law. Law can limit injustice, and that is good, yet Christians know that only grace can change hearts. However, we can only contribute that insight to the conversation if we first experience that grace ourselves.
One of the questions that perplex many Christians has to do with the nature of our confession. Is it appropriate for Christians today to confess the sins of Christians who lived before us? Our generation did not bring slavery to this country. We did not own slaves, or work in the past to keep African Americans officially and unofficially segregated and diminished. Granted, everyone bears responsibility to deal with today’s problems, but is it appropriate for today’s Christians to confess related sins that were committed before our time?
It is easy to understand why confessing the sins of our spiritual ancestors would seem offensive and unbiblical. Ezekiel’s words are well-known,
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:20)
That seems clear. Each person is responsible for his or her own actions, be they righteous or sinful. No one is judged guilty by God for actions committed by someone else. Case closed.
Well, not quite. Because responsibility for the individual actions of others is not the only factor. Having recently studied the Book of Daniel, I was intrigued by Daniel’s prayer of confession in Chapter 9. In review: As a teenager, Daniel was one of many forcefully removed from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when he destroyed the city and Temple. This calamity was God’s chastising response to generations of Israel’s sin, to help them remember the slavery from which they had originally been delivered. God promised to bring his people back from what was called their “exile” after 70 years. Decades later, as the Babylonian administration gave way to a Persian one, Daniel prayed for God’s mercy to end the exile a bit sooner. Chapter 9 records his prayer.
I am struck by his use of “we.” Daniel was a teenager when God’s punishment fell in response to sins that went back many generations. Even so, Daniel prays, “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled” (vs. 5). “We have not listened to your servants the prophets” who spoke to Israel’s leaders, fathers and all the people (vs. 6).
Daniel was not thinking of specific kings or fathers or people of the land. He was not taking on personal responsibility for another individual’s sin. He implied as much when he called Israel’s sin “the treachery that they have committed against you” (vs. 7, emphasis added). Even so, he clearly shared responsibility for the sins of ancestors who were part of the same group he is part of, that is, the people of God. For example,
To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you.To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice (Daniel 9:8-11).
The key phrase here is “all Israel.” For generations, all Israel sinned against God, not that every individual sinned equally, but certain sins characterized the nation as a whole and led to chastisement of the nation as a whole. Daniel was part of “all Israel.” If all Israel sinned, then Daniel’s life was caught up in that sin. Look at how Daniel pulls it together in vs. 15, “And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day, we have sinned, we have done wickedly.” “Your people” directly links to “we have sinned.
It’s important to note that confession always begins with our own personal sin. Daniel was famous for his daily prayers, and I’m confident that confession was a regular part of them. It’s also important that Daniel’s “group” confession was not generic. That is, he did not confess Babylon’s sins. Daniel’s focus was on the people of God who knew better, yet trampled God’s Law and God’s character anyway, bringing disaster on them all.
But what is most important is to understand why Daniel confessed as he did. It had nothing to do with false humbleness or being politically correct. Daniel was praying to restore the relationship between God and his people which unrepentant sin had strained.
As a boy, Daniel probably heard Jeremiah prophesy about the exile. And he heard the Lord’s promise that he would bring the people home.
For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.
You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:10-14)
God’s promise of mercy and restoration was not so much dependent on a time factor as it was dependent on God’s people seeking him. What God is always concerned about is covenant, or relationship. Even amidst all their religion, Israel had forgotten God’s face, what he looks like, his justice and compassion and kindness and mercy and generosity and gladness. They forgot the love that established a special relationship by calling them out of slavery.
People who remember their deliverance are kindhearted to others, especially those most vulnerable. When Israel stopped caring and became callous, it was clear that they had forgotten both their deliverance and their Deliverer. The Lord brought a season of calamity upon them so that they would remember the bitter taste of slavery, and the lovingkindness that sought them out. God longed for his people to look for him and find him again—to seek him, and seek him with all their heart. The fellowship with God in their land would be restored when their vision of him was restored.
Surely that is the present need for today’s church in America. We love our religion, our preaching and singing and programs. But we have forgotten the love that called us out of slavery into an undeserved but unbreakable relationship with the Living God, paid for by God himself in the person of his Son. Too many of us have lived for centuries without qualm in a nation of blatant and pervasive inequality. We have obviously forgotten our own deliverance and our Deliverer. If we had not forgotten him, we could not have lived so complacently. Our God is not looking for politically correct language. Our God is not primarily looking to fix America’s problems. Our God is looking for his people to seek him again, and find him. We cannot introduce others to a God we barely know.
Daniel could have prayed only for himself, and God would have responded simply to Daniel. But Daniel spoke for all God’s people, owning Israel’s sin by emphasizing his identity with them, so in that sense, their sin did become his. Daniel confessed and sought the fellowship with God that Israel had lost. That was the music God longed to hear.
Years before, in a vision for just a moment, Daniel glimpsed the Son of man. God the Father sees his beloved Son all the time. And when Daniel prayed as he did, the Father saw his Son in him. His Son, who would identify with all God’s people. The sinless one who would bear their sin as his own and personally ask the Father to forgive. He would pray that all God’s children would return home.
So God responded to Daniel by bringing Israel home early.
Confessing the sin of the American church past and present is a privilege that all American Christians have. May our spiritual descendants be so faithful in dealing with our sin. We aren’t rejecting our spiritual ancestors; we’re just recognizing the sin that damaged the entire church’s fellowship with the Lord. It tells God we are sorry that it distanced us from him, deprived the American church of its intended diversity, and earned for his church the reputation of being mean, selfish and heartless. That is not what our God is like.
Taking Daniel’s lead, confessing the sin of our spiritual ancestors is a way to seek God’s face today. By confessing how we, his people, have gone wrong, we all benefit from rediscovering the Lord’s inspiring character and soul-healing love. It is, as one might say, what Jesus would do.
When the Lord God looks at his people and sees his Son, he rejoices over us. He listens and he responds. God’s response will not be to heal America; he will heal his people. But know this: if the Christians of America rediscover Christ and massively begin to love all their neighbors as he showed us, the wider results would be amazing grace.