The first way I’m trying to respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail is to celebrate progress. So much ground has been gained, yet we cannot stop at that celebration. I feel we should admit that such progress was gained “without much help from me or people like me.”
Let me start by addressing a common objection to this kind of confession in reconciliation processes of any kind. The objections fall along two lines:
a) I was not even alive/present when the sins were committed–why should I confess sins I had no part in?
b) Confessions have already been given, and forgiveness asked for–why do we need to “keep this alive” by constantly confessing?
These are legitimate objections. Let me address both in turn:
The key to the first objection, I believe, is the nature of the confession. There are at least four kinds of confessions, that may have a bearing on this discussion:
1) individual recent
2) individual past
3) corporate recent
4) corporate past
An individual present confession is one I make to another for something I’ve recently done. The second individual past is to confess sinful attitudes or actions “I had at one time” that I’ve never owned up to. The third is for a group corporately confessing sin that they have been committing more recently, and the fourth, likewise, is for a group corporately confessing sins that the group had historically engaged in.
Some clarity can be gained by pointing out these divisions, and to understand that at times one can confess for a group because membership in the group itself retains some responsibility, if not culpability, for the actions of a group, in the present or in the past. In my own life I find a responsibility for my family, my city, my church, my people.
Confessions of all these kinds are good for the soul–and by that I mean the soul of the person sinned against–who is given a gift of ownership of the sins against them, something not often done. I also mean the soul of the individual confessor–who need not carry the guilt, even associational guilt, in the future, and likewise may act out of true love, rather than guilt, in the future (i.e.: “white guilt”). And finally the soul of the group itself is cleansed through such confession. I believe cities, churches, and even entire subcultures and races have been held back by unconfessed sin the past. The enemy keeps these things alive when unconfessed, when sin is in the camp, and the camp ignores it.
The second objection is perhaps a stronger one–and I think we need to be sensitive to the fact that we need not do “annual confessions” or provide “routine re-enactments of confession and reconciliation” where the oppressor dresses up in oppression regalia, and the ones who look like generations hence are again placed in the chains of “oppression reenactment.” The way to ensure this doesn’t happen is to first ask: “have we actually ever confessed?” If we never have, as a group, then we need to. And each group might ask this question. I for myself see more responsibility to confess for my family, my city, and my denomination, than I see for “all white people”, in the case of the context of the Letter for Birmingham Jail, for instance. I don’t feel a need to confess for “white southerners…” Instead I feel a need to confess for my family, for my city, and for my denominational tribe–who were not as present as we might have been, and ignored the issues, all, too much. Notably, the last public lynching of a black man took place in the town of my birth: Marion, Indiana. I confess for my people of Grant County and that is something I might do, and should do, and you, not being a native of that place, do not need to feel the need to do so. If you are not of my denominational tribe or family, then you need not feel these confessions as strongly as I do. But they are here for you to learn from if you choose to do so.
So, I confess here in two of the above ways: the second, and the fourth. Perhaps I will edge into the present in my next article on this subject, but for now I engage this individually for the past, and corporately for the past.
Personally, I have found myself to have had racist attitudes and behaviors in my life. I have pre-judged people based on their skin color alone. I have felt unexpected danger and fear that is only explainable because of prejudicial attitudes. I have avoided some races over others, and have been drawn to support and associate based on racial divisions. I have personally not advanced or selected or favored those from other races, preferring my own kind at many times in the past. I have not personally been a part of the solution for much of my life–and have committed not only these acts of commission above but also thousands of acts of omission, where I might have been a help to racial division and inequality. I confess all the above and would love to be informed of other ways I have sinned. I not only confess those I omit but I am also willing to confess other sins I have committed at a future time, you need only help me see the failing. This is my confession, with sadness and shame, but with hope for forgiveness from God and from those I have sinned against.
Corporately, I focus on my Wesleyan tribe. It is timely that our denomination has been a part of a broader effort to acknowledge our sins of commission and omission during the civil rights movement in particular. Dr. King’s letter, 50 years old now, went on to become perhaps the single most important document of the Civil Rights era, and continues to be studied today. Exactly 50 years after the letter was written, my boss, Dr. Jo Anne Lyon (who is the General Superintendent of my denomination) said, “Dr. King’s letter must not be forgotten. It is a prophetic timeless message.” The letter includes such famous statements as, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” However, there has never been a formal response to the letter.
An assembly of church representatives has gathered in Birmingham from April 14-15, 2013, on the anniversary of the event to present a response to the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I was present on behalf of The Wesleyan Church so that we might too confess our part. We were there as a part of our connection to Christian Churches Together, the broadest Christian ecumenical group in America including African American, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, and Orthodox Churches. CCT has led this effort with The Wesleyan Church’s involvement.
Dr. Lyon participated from the beginning in the drafting of the response document, which was led by Dr. Ron Sider, who has become a a good friend to me and The Wesleyan Church, and has been friends with Dr. Lyon for decades. The Response includes confessions from each distinct CCT family, including one from our Evangelical/Pentecostal family. Our full confession, which I affirmed, is this:[dropcap1]As the Evangelical/Pentecostal family of Christian Churches Together, we confess with sadness and shame that we were at best silent and often even hostile when Dr. King led the historic movement against racial injustice. We also confess that it has taken us far too long, in the intervening years, to acknowledge pervasive racism in our midst and begin to repent and change. Even now our people often fail to grasp the complex realities of structural racism.”[/dropcap1]
More information on the Response to the Letter from Birmingham Jail can be found online at www.christianchurchestogether.org
Return if you will, as I talked about “continuing the struggle” in the next article.
How about you–do you agree with my thinking on the kinds of confession in general? Also, what response do you have to my personal and our corporate confession?[divider type=”simple”]
Links to the “Five Ways to Respond to the Letter from Birmingham Jail” Series: