November 24, 1999

Dear Larry and Ruth,

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. We also know that God extends to us grace to empower the amendment of our lives which we seek.

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, which is corporate or social sin. I came to think about this as a result 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, Cyril Wismar, 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? Bishop Wismar recognizes our having sinned by its ill effects in our lives, goes back and finds the event from which the ill effects proceed, 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. The bomb also yielded us great economic power, and the consequent affluence has severely damaged our morals, our lives and spirits, and ravaged our sense of community.

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, 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.

But the really difficult question to get our heads around is, how do we repent all this, and to whom. 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 may 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 a human rights movement. We organize and demonstrate against various things in our national life. 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.

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 the 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 millions of Americans, and formally delivered on the fiftieth anniversary of the deed. In the letter we would admit the sin and say 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.

And we ask for grace to amend our national life. Who knows but that God will grant us forgiveness and the renewal of life that comes from living as forgiven sinners? Who knows what miracles God may work in our national life? I spoke a while back with three German Christian women. They told me that a group of Christians in Germany had decided that the division of Germany was a result of the holocaust and other Nazi horrors. They decided to pray in a repentant fashion for forgiveness in the name of and on behalf of their people. Now the wall is down and Germany reunited. Can the same happen for our country? Dare we ask?

This vision has been with me now for several years. Finally I have concluded that I should attempt to make the vision reality. I think that God has given me this vision and is calling me to share it with you, to test it. So I am spreading my vision. Do you think that God is calling us as Christian folk to this specific act of repentance? If so, how best shall we word this confession? I would be interested to hear any suggestions you might have. Or tell me what is wrong with the idea or the confession. I am open to all ideas. You can help me hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

And thank you for taking the time to read this letter.

Yours in Christ,

Robert Rea