3/12/17: Learning How to Confess, Psalm 32
Learning How to Confess
Second in the series: Learning How to Love
First Lesson: Matthew 4:1-11
Second Lesson: Psalm 32
Rev. Scott Dickison
Almost exactly four years ago, in March of 2013, Kevin Murphy, the chief of police in Montgomery, Alabama, was invited to speak at a ceremony to mark the 50 year anniversary of the March toMontgomery, that critical event in the Civil Rights Movement where protestors aimed to march from Selma to Montgomery to draw attention to Jim Crow laws, specifically the ones that prohibited African Americans from voting. The first attempt at this march did not even get outside of Selma. In what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday, the Selma sheriff’s department met the protestors on the Edmund Pettis Bridge with tear gas, billy clubs and dogs. Brutal pictures of the scene broadcasted into the living rooms of many in white America went a long way in moving Civil Rights legislation along.
Representative John Lewis, from here in Georgia, just a young man at the time, was one of the march’s leaders and was in attendance at this ceremonyto mark its anniversary—which was held in the First Baptist Church of Montgomery. Police chief Murphy knew this, and so during his remarks, he went a bit off script. The department, nor the mayor—not even Murphy’s wife expected him do what he did, which was apologize.
You see, back in 1961—years before Police Chief Murphy was even born—John Lewis had been a part of what was known as the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of protestors that boarded Greyhound buses hoping to make the trip from Washington, DC to New Orleans. The Supreme Court had declared that segregation on interstate buses was unconstitutional, and this group aimed to expose how this system of segregation still reigned. And so as they stopped in different stations along the way, they were met by angry, violent white mobs. Once in Rock Hill, SC, just outside my hometown of Charlotte, they were beaten by a mob for attempting to use a white-only rest area. At another point, their bus was set on fire, and when the passengers attempted to get off, they were blocked in by the mob, lucky to escape with their lives. In Birmingham, AL, they were again met by a mob and police at the scene responded by arresting the bus-riders. So one might have assumed that a similar mob would be waiting for them when they got to Montgomery, and indeed there was. But when the buses arrived at the station, the Montgomery Police Department was no where to be found, leaving the bus-riders to the white mob and another brutal beating that would land many in the hospital.
So all those many years later, when Police Chief Murphy made his way to the chancel there at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, and saw Rep. Lewis in the front row, he knew there was something he needed to do. He looked the congressman in the eye and said, I want to apologize. We failed to protect you and the other Freedom Riders. In 1961, Montgomery police were not very good to you. But today, we’re a better department.
The room fell silent as folks realized what was taking place in front of them. Congressman Lewis, visibly overwhelmed by the gesture, stood and embraced the police chief, but as he turned to sit back down, Chief Murphy stopped him, and, taking off his badge, he held it up and said, This symbol of authority, which used to be a symbol of oppression, needs to be a symbol of reconciliation.” And he gave it to Congressman Lewis.
Talking with reporters later that day, Murphy would say:
I think what I did today should have been done a longtime ago. It needed to be done. It needed to be spoken because we have to live with the truth and it is the truth. (1)
This 40-day lenten journey of “Learning How to Love,” that we have embarked upon together toward the cross—another symbol ofauthority and oppression that we proclaim has become a symbol of reconciliation—begins with learning to live with and tell the truth, which is another way of saying learning to confess.
Confession is among the most counter-cultural things we can do as people of faith. No where else in the world, I would say, is confession the norm and certainly not encouraged. The voices we most often hear in popular culture tell us instead to “Deny, deny, deny,” until you absolutely cannot anymore, and then deny again. Never confess, is the rule we receive from the world. Never tell the whole truth—about yourself, about your neighbor, about the world. Reveal nothing, own nothing, be accountable for nothing—spin everything. The truth, as it’s understood out there, is what you can convince others it is.
Now, understand, to say that we don’t live in a culture of confession is not to say that we don’t have a culture of guilt. In fact, in my experience, I believe most of us live our lives carrying around an incredible amount of guilt. We live in a culture of inadequacy, surrounded by voices that tell us we don’t do enough, we don’t achieve enough, we don’t accomplish or own or win enough—the sum total of which is: you are not enough. So we feel guilty for not working enough, or not being a good enough parent or not being fully present to our loved ones, our children—guilt created precisely because of our guilt for not working enough. In our zero-sum, you win/I lose, achievement oriented, high-anxiety system, guilt is ubiquitous. Guilt is our currency.
It’s precisely because we don’t have a culture of confession that we carry this guilt around, because the end goal of confession is not to make us feel guilty, but to assure us that we are forgiven—to offer us a path to forgiveness. This is absolutely crucial. Any Christian confession is always immediately followed by the assurance that you are forgiven—guilt is not the goal of confession, forgiveness is. But without confession, we have no practice, no ritual, no way forward to move through and beyond this guilt and so we stay there in it. Or we do our best to bury our guilt down as far down as we can, only it never really goes away, it only festers and grows and becomes something so much more than the original offense. As long as we do not confess, this part of us will always be dying. This is what the psalmist meant when she wrote:
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
It’s the silence that kills; that eats away.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
The end goal of confession is not guilt, the goal is forgiveness, and
forgiveness, in the end, is every bit as countercultural is confession. Forgiveness pushes back on the prevailing assumption that the only way we can truly be made whole is to move one, keep working, keeping doing, keep spending, keep taking on more and more and more—that this is the only way you will be made whole. The good news is that this is a lie. The good news is that wholeness is not achieved in taking more on. Wholeness is received, almost paradoxically, in holding on to less. Wholeness is found in letting go.
It’s in the “letting go” of confession and the forgiveness we’re offered in it that we’re made whole again—that allows us to reconcile, to atone, that we become “at one” again, with ourselves, with God, and with our neighbor. This is the good news.
Which brings us to something that’s been lingering since that story of police chief Murphy and Congressmen Lewis: Why would Kevin Murphy feel the need to confess to John Lewis for crimes that he did not commit—crimes, in fact, that were committed before he was even born? Why would he feel the need to do this, and why would it be so meaningful for John Lewis to receive this confession from someone who wasn’t there or involved?
It’s because while we try our best to think of ourselves solely as individuals—this is what we are told: that we are self-made, self-sustaining—we know intuitively, I think, that our identity, our understanding of who we are, extends much further than the limits of our own body, even our own lifetime. We know this especially as the church, where we tell stories that we find in Scripture and claim them as our own. We are a people who honor history, we’re a people of memory, we honor the ways we are connected through time and space. We know this. We know that we live our lives not simply as individuals but as participants in all sorts of different groups—our nationality, ethnicity, race, class, gender, religion. We’re born into these things, we inherit them, and in many cases can’t escape them, but can only contend with them. And we can’t take all the good we inherit with them without also accepting the bad, and at times the painful. There are benefits we enjoy, but there are also sins for which we must atone. Police Chief Murphy and John Lewis understood this. I believe you and I understand this.
Kevin Murphy understood that when he became the chief of police in Montgomery Alabama, he inherited many things, and one of those things was a history of violence and oppression against people of color. He felt the weight of it—We failed to protect you back then, he said—we. And he knew that the only way to let go of it—for himself, his department, and so many who participated in that corrupt system of racial violence was to confess, repent, and seek reconciliation. A silence had been kept, these things He needed to tell the truth, trusting Jesus Christ when he said that only the truth will set us free.
Some weeks back Doug Thompson and I began to look back a little more closely into our own church’s history, especially into those early years leading up to split between the black and white members of the church that resulted in having to First Baptist Churches around the corner from each other. As it turns out, we have kept pretty good archives through the years and have a roll book that dates to the mid 1800s, counting the membership, all who joined and even those who left—or were dismissed (which, it turns out, was quite a few). But we—and here I really mean Doug—began to look back at some of these early members and see exactly their relationship with the institution of slavery. And not surprisingly, I don’t think, there was much to find. As best we can tell, it appears that five of our six founding families (counting an early trustee) were slaveowners, owning anywhere from 1 to 12 enslaved people.
We’re still looking into this, but it also appears at least possible that our sanctuary on 2nd Street, at the time said to be the finest house of worship in the city, may have been financed through the sale of 20 enslaved people by one of our prominent families. Which means, given what we know about our congregation at the time, that itincluded both slaveowners and their slaves, that the church building may have been financed through the sale of some of its own members.
Of course, even if this weren’t the case, it remains clear that much of the tithes and offerings given to support the ministry of this church was “acquired” through the work and ownership of enslaved people.
And I don’t mean to be naive here. I think we all know, intellectually at least, that every institution in the South that dates to that period was in some way enriched or otherwise connected to the institution of slavery, but it’s nonetheless jarring to see it plain on paper. (1)
And I will confess that I don’t know exactly what to do with this information. Doug is still looking into more, and part of me fears what he might find. But more than anything, as I’ve been reflecting on this, I’m convinced that this is why we need—is it too naive to say that this is why we need the gospel? Is it too naive, is it too inadequate to say that this is why we need the good news of confession, of repentance of reconciliation? Is it too little to say that this is why we need the church? We must confess, of course, that the church is not outside of these ills that we hope to articulate, that we hope to shine a light upon—we cannot act like we are outside of this. But in order to bear light too these things, in order to bear the gospel light we claim is reflected off of us into the world, we must first confess. We must lead in confession. This, I believe, in the end may be the only thing the church has to offer the world, which as it turns out is our very soul. We can be in communion with people anywhere, we can find God anywhere. We can find God out in the world anywhere, but as I heard it said once, where else in the world can you be told that you are forgiven? Plenty of places tell you you’re guilty; where else are you forgiven?
This is who we are as gospel people: people who stand before the cross in this journey we’re taking together this season. people who stand before the cross and tell the truth. People who speak the truth, in order that we might truly be the presence of a truth-telling God in a world that is in such need of it.
This is learning how to love.
This is learning how to love.
(2) To follow along with Doug in his research, check his blog at: http://douglasethompson.com/blogs/churches-and-slavery-first-baptist-church-of-christ-macon-georgia/