“You Are Not Exempt”: What Jesus Showed Me About the Collective Nature of Sin

crowd crucifies

I have a confession to make: I don’t like public confession of sins.

Confession to a priest has always seemed unnecessary to me, since I believe we can confess directly to God – and receive absolution directly from God.

But even the corporate confession of sin in the Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal liturgies has bothered me – for a different reason.

You see, I believe it’s possible for us to be free of sin, even before death. I believe perfect holiness is possible even in our mortal form. And while I will be the first to admit I still sin (I still do things I shouldn’t do, to myself and others), I don’t have the feeling that I do this on a weekly basis, as the liturgy implies.

In any case, the liturgy makes us confess to things we may not have even done, and so it has always seemed a little ridiculous to me.

That all changed a couple of weeks ago. As I was driving home from church that day, I saw a vision of children suffering and dying in Syria – and each of them had the face of Jesus. I also saw every major war and famine that had happened during my lifetime, and once again, each of the suffering people had the face of Jesus.

You have done this to me, Jesus said, and it seemed clear that the “you” in this case was a collective one – all the people who have, in one way or another, supported western imperialism. But then Jesus looked at me personally, and said, You are not exempt.

In that moment I came to see that I was, on some small level, responsible for all this bloodshed and famine – since I partake in a system that does these things.

In an indirect way, I enjoy the comfortable lifestyle that I do because others are being deprived. I may not be guilty of all this sin personally, but the system sins on my behalf.

The truth is that all of us are, on some level, responsible for the suffering of others. In the words of the Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “Any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members. Even though we are not, in the strictest sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved” (Ware, The Orthodox Way, 62).

This vision had grace, however, and not just judgment. The same Jesus who had showed me my failings was very quick to forgive me, seeking reconciliation more than vengeance.

Indeed, I have come to be grateful that God is showing me the results of my actions a little at a time, as I am able to receive them – rather than allowing me to face it all at once after my death. If I had to see it all at once, I’m not sure I could handle it!

In any case, I am learning to see corporate confession in a new light. I may not, as an individual, have committed all the sins we confess each week – but that’s not the point. The point is that we as a community are acknowledging where we fall short, and allowing God to reorient us and make us stronger. And in that I rejoice.

 

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