Confession is Good for the Soul
For Sunday March 18, 2012
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22
In the movie Crash — the Academy Award's 2005 Best Film, director Paul Haggis paints a dark picture of human nature. The movie begins with a car wreck that symbolizes the "collisions" between ordinary people that unleash our dark impulses that are normally suppressed by superficial social bonds. In the movie incidental encounters like vernacular slang, work, dress, music, marriage and family trigger outbursts of rage.
We watch as a Persian shop keeper ("They think we're Arabs!"), a Hispanic locksmith, two black hoodlums, a wealthy black film director, redneck white trash, a despicable suburban white couple, and an idealistic white rookie cop all project their insecurities and stereotypes onto each other. Paranoia — not all of which is unjustified, bigotry, and mutual misunderstanding darken their lives.
But Haggis knows that people are not merely bad or only bad. In Crash good people are bad, bad people are good, and everyone is a mixture of the two. When he issues a simple traffic citation, senior police officer Ryan molests a woman in front of her husband. But then in an ironic twist of fate, he later rescues her from a burning vehicle with self-sacrifice, professionalism, bravery and genuine compassion. In other scenes Ryan screams at a black woman clerk, but then back at home he tenderly cares for his dying father.
"You think you know who you are," Ryan advises his rookie partner, "but just wait a few years."
After ten years of imprisonment, then twenty years of banishment to Europe and Vermont, Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously concluded: "When I lay there on rotting prison straw...it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an un-uprooted small corner of evil."
In John's gospel Jesus describes this human struggle between forces of light and darkness, spiritual life and death, salvation and condemnation, belief and unbelief. He observes how we sometimes not only do evil but even love our evil deeds. This doesn't mean that every person sinks to their moral lowest, but it does signal that no one's immune from the deeds of darkness. As Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, the Christian idea of sin is its most empirical of all doctrines.
Similarly, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes our human condition as a struggle between forces of life and death. Ignoring our own best interests, we gratify our selfish cravings, follow dark desires, and relish irrational thoughts. This includes "all of us," he says. And this propensity to evil comes naturally to us, "by nature."
We read about the moral monsters in history books — Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, et al. The daily newspaper chronicles our will to death and darkness — political corruption, violence as media entertainment, corporate greed, and manipulation of desire by the marketers. And for the garden variety struggles of sickness, death, divorce, drugs, and the like, cast a compassionate glance toward your colleague or neighbor.
Even our best and brightest describe this experience of corruption. After a lifetime pursuing virtue among monastic communities, in his Conferences John Cassian (c. 360–435) wondered why monks who had renounced great wealth exhibited possessiveness over a needle, book or pen knife, or why a colleague flew into a rage at a dull stylus. In a remarkable anticipation of modern theories of the subconscious, he also admitted there were "many things that lie hidden in my conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to me."
Cassian echoes his contemporary St. Augustine, who wondered about the mind that could control the body but couldn't control itself.
Theories abound about how or why humanity arrived at this tug-of-war between light and life, death and darkness. Take your choice — the genetic lottery, foolish choices, moral complacency, evolutionary struggle, the vagaries of fate, family of origin, bad luck, inexplicable mystery, or primordial disobedience by our forbears that we inherited. I vote for "all of the above." But even if satisfying explanations of the cause of our sickness remain elusive, the experiential descriptions of their effects by people like Haggis, Solzhenitsyn, and Cassian ring true to me.
"The fault is not in our stars," Cassius insisted to Brutus, "but in ourselves."
In an article in the Times Literary Supplement (February 24, 2006), the British Jewish novelist and playwright Gabriel Josipovici (b. 1940) argues that, much to our frustration, the Bible leaves many questions unanswered. As "pure narrative," he says, the Bible favors brutal realism about our human condition over superficial consolation or theological explanations: "It does so," writes Josipovici, "because it recognizes that in the end the only thing that can truly heal and console us is not the voice of consolation but the voice of reality. That is the way the world is, it says, neither fair nor equitable. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to live so as to be contented and fulfilled?"
Lenten repentance thus precedes Easter resurrection. Divine consolation begins with human confession.
We've devised many coping mechanisms to avoid confession and repentance — denial, passive neglect, scape-goating, and rationalizations. The church, society, family and even our friends can pile on the shame-n-blame. And many contemporaries misconstrue confession before God as hatred of the self. But instead of a dour, pessimistic, or even misanthropic act, I believe with Josipovici that candid confession is liberating. Cassian, who had seen and heard every sort of pious pretense, insists that embracing our brokenness "without any obfuscating embarrassment" is healing.
Because of God's character no person needs to fear death, either spiritual death now or physical death later. No one needs to grope in darkness. Every person can enjoy not merely bios or length of days but what Jesus calls "eternal" life and what the Hebrew Bible calls shalom, that is, a degree of genuine human wholeness. "God," writes John in his gospel, "did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."
Others might condemn you, but God does not. Paul agrees. After diagnosing our condition, he emphasizes that God showers us with great love, rich mercy, kindness, and incomparably great grace, that is, with his unmerited favor. In being so favorably disposed to us, God longs to breathe life into the dead and to shine light into our darkness. Jesus compares this to a new birth. Just as every person has experienced an earthly birth of human origin, he invites us to experience a spiritual birth of divine origin.
Having confessed the depth of our need, we have only to embrace the grace God offers us. Paul tells the Ephesians that we do this by faith alone, apart from any human merit. Luther compared faith to "the beggar's empty hand" that reaches out to receive a gift. Accepting that we are accepted, just as we are and right where we are, by God whose love far exceeds human failure, our Lenten sorrow anticipates Easter joy.
Image credits: (1–3) Women's Studies 350 Blog Project.