The Cross of Repentance: Thoughts on Forgiveness and Confession

For the Third Month of the 2010 Friends’ Calendar this quote sits above the dates:

The life of the cross is a life of the cross of repentance…Most of those who inform us today that they “do not believe in sin” are really saying that they cannot believe in forgiveness. If we cannot accept God’s forgiveness as a continuing fact in the creation and in our own lives, then we must either live in a constant state of guilt, or deny our shortcomings and fall back on making excuses.

-John McCandless 1974

This struck me in a couple of ways:

First, any number of us struggle with the past, we struggle to move forward because of something that has happened to us, or been done to us. Some of these things are first rate atrocities not to be treated lightly or forgotten, while others move down the scale to a basic offense that we hang onto for any number of reasons. None of us (I don’t think?) want to live in a “constant state of guilt” nor do we wish to live in blindness, denying our shortcomings, yet it’s really difficult to see (or know) what those things are in our past that we have not yet been able to be reconciled to. Some of these things may be our own sins, some of them (many of them?), are the sins of others heaped onto us. It seems that part of this process includes becoming away of those things that we hang onto, and considering why we hang onto them? Part of the process may involve coming to terms with those things that hang onto us, and what it would look like for us to find liberation from those things. What I like about this quote is that it raises the question, do we believe that forgiveness is possible and even desirable?

Second, and on the other hand, I am afraid that we can’t simply make this a problem of “sin” language, because there are enough people in the world who still believe in “sin” but who live as those they cannot believe in forgiveness. The complexity of forgiveness, as noted above, requires more than a simple attainment of sin language. There are many who still use that language but who have yet to find pathways to forgiveness. Therefore, McCandless’ quote falls short on this much longer, deeper struggle to become free from our own bondage and the bondage of others. It doesn’t recognize that while some may easily offer and recieve forgiveness, for others it may be a life long project. This is a process that no one can do but ourselves, though we may pray for an accompaniment, someone who will walk with us through the process of finding freedom and liberation.

When approaching this complexity it seems like we might spend time reflecting on Jesus’ post-resurrection words:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:19ff)

There will be times when we forgive, and times when we retain, how has this, or might this, look in our meetings?

Finally, and more to the point, McCandless is really talking about what it means to repent, to turn from our own shortcomings and sins. And this gets much closer to the heart of the issue. We live in a society that refuses to accept responsibility for itself, from things like “global weirding,” to the various wars we find ourselves in, to failed marriages, lost jobs, split churches, you name it, someone else is to blame. As Frank Rich wrote this past Sunday:

We live in a culture where accountability and responsibility are forgotten values. When “mistakes are made” they are always made by someone else.

And so before we move too fast at forgiving sins, or retaining them, we need to make (or allow) room for confession. We just past through the Lenten season, what better time to reflect on confession than at this point in our calendar? While we need to practice this all the time, it seems to me if we leave these practices to any day, they often get practices on no days at all. This trouble is made most explicit in the all the trouble the Vatican has gotten itself into over holy week. As Maureen Dowd wrote for Easter morning:

How can the faithful enjoy Easter redemption when a Good Friday service at the Vatican was more concerned with shielding the pope than repenting the church’s misdeeds?

As Quakers, we don’t have any clear church calendar that we follow, and we don’t have any practices that encourage confession. I think we really need to work on this “blindspot” in our tradition, lest we to begin to think we have nothing to turn away from.