by Dr. Bruce Arnold
A few months ago, I presented a post on why I call myself a Christian. I hoped to add my voice to those who seek to make Christianity relevant to the 21st century and to further a dialog in which that faith can stand as one spiritual testimony among others; not the best, or the only, but a valuable option among many options.
At that time, I presented the same text as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Bern, NC. While I am a Quaker and not a UU, I have a long-standing friendship with UUFNB and have preached there many times.
In presenting that message at UUFNB, I knew that there would be criticism. Not so much of me, personally, nor even specifically of the message I brought, but of the Christian faith itself. And, as it happened, some of those criticisms were raised. At that time, wanting to stay focused on the content of that particular message, I did not engage them in any depth.
Yet, they are valid. They deserve more dialog. I knew that then, but I didn’t know what form the dialog might take.
A week or two later, the December issue of Friends Journal arrived in the mail. The main theme of the month explored some of these same issues, and how Quakers are addressing, and failing to address, them.
One article in particular spoke to me. It was precisely the other side of the coin, which I wanted to acknowledge.
Rather than summarize or paraphrase, I simply read these powerful words to the congregation. Written by Eden Grace, a member of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting in New England, and Field Officer in the Friends United Meeting office for ministry in Kisumu, Kenya, the article is entitled, “I Beg Your Forgiveness.”
“About two weeks ago I was at Indiana Yearly Meeting, where the main speaker was Jan Wood, who is well known among Friends. Maybe some of you have had the opportunity to hear her speak. She’s from Northwest Yearly Meeting, and wherever she goes, she has a very powerful witness and message that she brings about the importance of confession and repentance, and how healing it can be to confess not only our personal sins but the sins of our people. This is something I’ve experienced in Rwanda, and I’ve seen how transformative it can be. From her ministry at Indiana Yearly Meeting I felt that my message to you this morning came clear to me, and it’s a message of confession.
“I think many people here carry deep wounds from damaging religious experience in our past. I know I do. Those wounds may be closed over, but for many of us I think there’s still some shrapnel trapped inside. Sometimes when we talk to each other as a community and we seek God’s will together, those wounds become activated. That shrapnel causes a new sharp pain. An old wound can become a new pain or a reminder of pain. I know that happens for me, and I believe that many of us have experienced religious trauma in our past that becomes a factor, an obstacle, or just something that we bring into this room together.
“Taking the challenge that Jan Wood presented, and that I felt God calling me to embrace, I want to confess to you the sins of my people. Who are my people? I identify as a born-again Christian standing in the evangelical theological tradition, and I want to speak to you today as a Christian and on behalf of my Christian people. Whether I agree with them or not, whether I have done any of these things personally or not, doesn’t matter, because these are my people and if I choose to stand in the river of faith and identify with it, then I bear the sins of my people as a personal responsibility.
“On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have denied the full humanity and spiritual gifts of those who are different.
“Therefore, on behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have done terrible damage in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have denied the full humanity and spiritual gifts of those who are different, that we have used the loving and liberating word of God as a weapon. On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have claimed that some people are not worthy to be used by God in faithful service. I confess that we have behaved as if some sins are graver than others and some biblical texts are more rigidly applied, bringing hypocrisy and inconsistency to our own biblical scholarship.
“On behalf of myself and my people, I confess that we have hijacked the symbols and texts of Christian faith and drastically narrowed their meaning. I confess that we have used violence in the name of the Prince of Peace. We have accused those who read the Bible differently than we do of not being loyal and obedient believers, or of not loving the Bible as much as we do. I confess on behalf of myself and my people that we have cared more for spiritual and otherworldly salvation than for justice and suffering and liberation from oppression. We have been consumed by our fear of how we might be contaminated by our fellowship with you. We have arrogantly believed that we have a full and complete understanding of the will of God and the proper application of the Bible in every context.
“We have been judgmental, uncompromising, harsh, and uncharitable. I confess that we have desecrated the name of Jesus by acting in ways of which He would be ashamed. I’m so sorry. I humbly repent and beg your forgiveness. In these and so many other ways, Christians, people who love Jesus, have presented a counter-witness. We have pushed people away from God, from the love and the liberation of God, instead of drawing them closer.
“On behalf of myself and my people, I beg your forgiveness.”
Text of “I Beg Your Forgiveness” ©2011 Friends Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission. To subscribe: www.friendsjournal.org
Introductory paragraphs ©2012 Bruce R. Arnold, New Bern, NC