During my sermon from Nehemiah 1 on Sunday I paused and asked for reflection from the congregation. I’d pointed out that, as part of his prayer, Nehemiah confessed his own complicity in the fate that had befallen his people. In verse 6 he says, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you.” I asked for the congregation’s feedback because, in my experience, confession of the kind Nehemiah demonstrates is an uncommon experience for most Christians. Sure enough, one of our members pointed out how difficult it is for him to understand how he could confess on behalf of someone else. This is, after all, what Nehemiah does in his prayer: he not only confesses his complicity, he also asks for forgiveness on behalf of his people who did not obey God’s “commands, decrees and laws.” I relate with this members’ dilemma with this passage; it’s one I share.
In 1987 Wendell Berry wrote an essay, “Writer and Region,” in which he explored some of the themes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. One of these is “the yen to escape the Territory.”
There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land. The probability is overwhelming that if we had belonged to the generation we deplore, we too would have behaved deplorably. The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably. Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination. How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it?
Most of us probably don’t consciously think this way, but historical self-righteousness is likely our hidden assumption. When confronting the ugliness of history it’s simply natural to imagine myself always choosing to fight with the good guys. Surely I would have been one of the few enlightened white men who would have forsaken my privilege so as to stand on the right side of history. Probably not.
As Berry notes, this self-righteousness severs me from a real historical narrative; I stand outside of history, superior to it. This must be one of the reasons many of us find the idea of confession on behalf of our fore-bearers to be confusing or even intolerable: confusing because there is no real connection with my ancestors; intolerable because I would have acted differently in their circumstances. In contrast, Nehemiah comes from a people and religion that understood their association across generations. His confession on behalf of his people comes from historical humility. He knows who he comes from and doesn’t question whether he’d have acted any better in their circumstances.
Without this clear connection with our history the idea of confession, beyond our own personal and immediate actions, will always feel like an unnatural stretch. Is it possible to reclaim our history, including the undesirable parts that merit our confession? Later in his essay Berry suggests a definition for “beloved community,” and this seems to me the most hopeful way forward. The beloved community is marked by, “common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.”
Willingly belonging to such a community places us within the trajectory of history. Being rooted in common experience, effort and ground converts us from historical self-righteousness to a realization that we come from somewhere and have been shaped by those who came before us. Whether or not such a community is possible or even desirable for most people today is a more difficult question to consider, but without it the Biblical idea of corporate confession will always remain an odd concept.