Can a Nation Be Forgiven Its Sins?

Last week's sermon was a simple message about sin and reconciliation. We need simply to say, there, in that place, in this specific act, I have done wrong. I could see its effects on me and others. I will confess my sin and be forgiven. We are not to haver, to hem and haw about it, but to say in the plainest words, what it was we have done and that we are sorry. We are not to make excuses or proffer rationalizations that only keep us from simple forgiveness, that bind us in our sin.

Sin is usually recognized from some ill effect on us, on our lives and on those around us, or on our relationships. This ill effect leads us to examine our lives, to look back at events and behavior and say, here I went wrong, in this specific act I turned away from my own goodness. We name our offense, by a kind of reflection and analysis of our behavior. We ought, by the way, to be somehow grateful for the ill effect's bringing our attention to our erring. This recognition, in turn, leads us to confess our sin. We name it in as specific detail as we can, not holding back but opening our hearts to God, and to another if we need. This confession enables us to try to change our behavior and to make restitution or apology where we can.

This is an accurate account of our sinning and repentance, as far as it goes, but there is another kind of sin we might want to think about this Lent, which is social or corporate or even cultural sin. I came to think about this out of a sermon which I heard a while back. The occasion was an ecumenical service for the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, and the sermon was by a Lutheran bishop who had been in Japan on that anniversary during the time of the Vietnam war. He related his experience that day. After seeing on television the rites at the Hiroshima Memorial, he was on his way to teach a bible study.

Walking through one of the main squares...I came upon a large demonstration....This demonstration was focused on a man with a bullhorn who was shouting out all variety of vicious charges against the United States. As I walked by the outer rim of the demonstration his eyes and mine made contact. He removed the microphone of the bullhorn from his mouth, bowed toward me in typical Oriental manner. I halted long enough to return his silent greeting. And, as I hurried on my way I felt as if in that bow I had received something of an absolution from one whose nation had suffered such hideous devastation by our bomb.

Absolution is not an inappropriate word, I believe. Something happened to the soul of America that day forty years ago. It is my firm belief that many of the ills and aches we have suffered on far-flung battlefields and local neighborhoods can be traced directly to that moral lapse....Haven't we heard the equivocating remark that by dropping the bomb we saved hundreds of thousands of American lives?...However, is it possible to suggest that the life of an American is, in the sight of God, worth more than the life of a Japanese soldier or civilian?

...Something happened to the soul of America forty years ago and something must happen to the soul of America today....It is time indeed to climb to the house of God that He may teach us His ways of forgiveness and peace. Forgiveness from Him must come first, but it can come only if we are willing to confess our sins.

Do you see the similarities to individual sin? The bishop recognizes our having sinned by its ill effects in our lives, goes back and finds the event from which the ill effects proceed, to the wrong choice, and sees that it was a wrong act that led to further wrong. That further wrong, at least, is easily traced. The position of power yielded the US by its possession of the bomb has led us to offend again and again in the name of our power, which we claim as a power for good.

But can we get our heads around a notion of social sin, social confession and absolution, social forgiveness? How might we characterize such sin? It is an act of a group of which we are members, and by our membership, we are participant in the act. But it is not something over which we have much if any control, and certainly not the control we would have over our individual acts. In terms of an individual morality it is an almost fully compelled act and therefore we are not culpable to any significant degree. However, it is often something from which we benefit. We Americans have benefitted greatly from the arms race generated by the bomb of Hiroshima; our prosperity is based there, and our affluent and even luxurious state of life. But it is also something for which we suffer, either its ill effects or the pain of knowing it as sin, for which we are sorry, which we would repent and change if we could.

Once you begin to think this way, it's not hard to lay out some examples, and to think about sorts of social sin. Hiroshima is an obvious example of national sin. But there are sins that are not sins of a nation state. Sins like racism, sexism and classism occur at another level than the political. They may well have to be laid at the door of our culture. This is to say that they are very deeply rooted in our very identities. They are taught us with all the force that a culture has, and we are thoroughly compelled by our cultures to use these customs, but we may in so doing be offending against humankind, destroying the fabric of culture that supports us, and destroying the physical and biological world in which we live. In fact, our very participation in the culture in trivial and inoffensive ways may support the most offensive behavior. Every newspaper bought is the death of trees, and how we choose to dress may serve to support a class-consciousness that is insidiously damaging our world and our fellow creatures. Our choice of the automobile over public transportation is one example. The pattern of the social fabric may itself be rending that very fabric, and the patches of new that we apply may simply be making the old rip worse.

But the really difficult question to get our heads around is, how do we repent of all this, and to whom, and that is the question I am trying to bring you this evening. I'm hoping you have the answer, because I don't. Maybe if we all work on it, we can find it. We are accustomed to thinking of sin and repentance as characterizing individuals. But this social sin is not something that individuals do, and repentance as individuals seems beside the point, though in fact we often do feel responsible and repentant. Nor is it something for which, having repented, we could make restitution, if restitution were possible. It is just not under our control.

Of course we do try to do something about this. We protest, we try to effect social change, and we organize political efforts. We write our congressperson, we join the women's movement, or civil rights, or gay rights. We organize and demonstrate against our current nastiness in Central America, and I remember a time not so long ago when some of us talked and others prepared revolution in America. In terms of theological history, this effort is Pelagian, in a way. The effort assumes that we can do it by effort, that we can save ourselves. It is not that these efforts are a wrong move, but that they are not enough, and furthermore, they fail to own the deep powerlessness which lies at the heart of the problems they seek to amend. We need more, we need help from God, we need grace to amend our lives, social as well as individual. We need that grace to descend into the heart of our lives and heal our powerlessness. This we will see in the death and resurrection of the Lord at the end of Lent. The ultimate solution is in view, but first, in Lent, we need to look at our sin and our ability, or inability, to change, and consider repentance and confession. Once we know our need so excruciatingly, perhaps we can behold the Cross.

But perhaps, in the meantime, we could begin to imagine the sorts of things that might be repentance for social sin. Take Hiroshima. Imagine with me, if all of us who cared were to confess together that now we can see the wrongfulness of act committed there. I have a vision of a letter of apology and repentance to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to all the people of Japan, signed by tens of millions of Americans, and formally delivered on the fiftieth anniversary of the deed. In the letter we would admit the sin and state that we repent. We would also say that we are powerless to amend the result but that we hate the power it has put into the hand of our nation. Could you imagine an immediate apology to the people of Nicaragua? If there were a public repentance for sexism or the like, what form would it take? What words would we use, what symbols show and behold? And imagine all of these with a public declaration of powerlessness over them, calling on God for forgiveness and the grace to overcome them, at whatever level we would have to work to overcome them.

Well, these are vague, but I hope not vain, imaginings, and I just want to invite you to join me in them. Help me think this Lent about how we might deal with this kind of sin, because I don't quite know what to think myself.

For reading and prayer, I would suggest a look at the prophets of Israel. Amos and Isaiah, among others, call for national repentance. In the story of Jonah, we see the people of Nineveh go through the process of repentance in sackcloth and ashes. How might we translate that for today? Could we somehow do that? How?

Or look at what Paul says in Philippians. Paul talks first about his confidence in the flesh, that is, about his membership in the nation and culture of Israel. He said he had grounds for pride in his citizenship. But he also says he counts all this as lost for the sake of Jesus Christ, and the righteousness that come from faith in Jesus and the power of the Resurrection, rather than the righteousness of his national culture. Paul and the other first Christians had, to a considerable extent, to leave behind their culture for the sake of the call of the Gospel. Could we do the same? How? What would it be like to do this?