One Jewish concept that carried over into Christianity is that of communal repentance. In ancient times, the sins of a community were atoned for with blood sacrifices. Today, communal repentance takes place one day a year on Yom Kippur, where Jews gather in synagogue to recognize the sins that were committed during the past year. It’s the rare Jewish holiday that is somber rather than celebratory, and is not known for feasting.
In the Anglican church, communal repentance is done on a weekly basis, with the following recitation from the Book of Common Prayer:
The Deacon or Celebrant then says,
Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.
Silence may be kept.
Minister and People:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
What does “communal sin” look like? One need not look any further than the systemic racism embedded in the American justice system, where black people are at great risk of harm for merely existing in common spaces. As a society, we fail these people by looking the other way; by neglecting to examine our own biases and blind spots; by electing politicians who claim to “not see color” or even deny that racism still exists.
One of the great failures of American Christianity is the inability to recognize communal sins. The emphasis, instead, is on the sins of the individual. When talking about racism, many Christians are prone to making statements such as “America’s past has nothing to do with me”; “Maybe some churches are racist, but mine isn’t.”
This overwhelming emphasis on individualism is not biblical. It’s distinctly American.
For these Christians, the gospel is more about personal salvation that has little, if anything, to do with addressing social problems. In reality, it’s both: Jesus elevated the lepers, the widows, and financially destitute. Ancient Christians cared for the sick, adopted abandoned infants as their own, and elevated women when such groups were considered useless or otherwise inferior by the Roman Empire.
Christianity has a history of social justice spanning centuries, yet somehow this concept got corrupted as a “liberal agenda.”
Most of us may never be preachers or missionaries, but we cultivate disciples in our own communities: in our families, our work spaces, our social clubs. Our attitudes and decisions have weight. Some voices carry louder and farther than others, but we all have some degree of influence with our words. Like it or not, we are working to shape our communities, making us equal players in responsibility for what happens to it.
The failure to examine our hearts for ways we subconsciously enable a broken system is hurting our black brothers and sisters. But it’s pride — another sin — that keeps us from being able to admit it.
This isn’t to say that we earn salvation by “good works,” or by how much of an impact we make in the realm of social justice. But “faith without works is dead.” The fruit of well-lived faith should move the needle closer to justice. A healthy faith should not be content to do nothing simply because we’re too afraid of “being political.”