Thesis 35: Communion Without Community
This post is part of a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in the series here.
35. They preach no Christian doctrine who teach that contrition is not necessary in those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessionalia.
Growing up United Methodist, I recall plenty of lazy theology around communion, but nothing that was particularly egregious. The part of the communion liturgy that I recall most clearly, though, was the prayer of confession. Though the moment of silence frequently felt a bit too short for me to calm my soul and admit my sin, it was a claim upon the power of contrition to effect real forgiveness. As I emptied myself of pride, ego, and a claim to being right, I allowed room for God and God's claim on me and my actions in the world.
As a Methodist, I also try to approach the Table with an awareness of both my own individual sin and my contribution to corporate sin. What are the ways in which I've passively allowed sin to be committed in my name without speaking against it? How do I benefit from injustice? How do I worry that acting in response to that injustice will cost me what I think is owed to me? How do I let the guilt of these admissions squelch my ability to act, allowing my white guilt to nefariously claim that, "Well, acting won't do much good anyway"?
What resonates with me about Luther's 32nd thesis is the spotlight on our human desire to obtain forgiveness and its benefits without actually moving towards contrition first. And why wouldn't we? Admitting wrongdoing is terribly uncomfortable. However, we must draw a distinction between contrition and guilt. Contrition opens us to admitting our humanity, our brokenness, our not-Godness. Guilt takes backwards in the process of salvation and asks us to dwell in shame, leading to a devaluing of our power. As a white person, this also lets me off the hook of trying to leverage my privilege to do good. In my work as a diversity and inclusion educator, I see this all the time in fellow white people. Conversations of privilege, imbalanced power dynamics, and systemic racism create closed body language and silent mouths. Conversely, talk of racial harmony, colorblindness, and picnics with police and protestors holding hands allows white people to lean into what looks like a solution already unfolding.
But aren't we skipping past contrition so that we can buy our own souls out of purgatory? Aren’t we cashing out our big bank account of privilege to pay up on our discomfort? Aren’t our hopes for a "post-racial" USAmerica actually a set of contemporary confessionalia that we purchase with our whiteness?
I also can't help but see this harmful ideology play out in our current climate around immigration and the president's executive orders meant to support his international business interests and his domestic evangelical Christian supporters. At the time of writing this blog post, protests are happening at airports around the country in opposition to Trump's executive order on immigration. The order targets Muslims more specifically than people of other faiths, and it also takes a narrow view of what is happening politically around the globe. If we as Christians cannot take the time to reflect on our participation in demonizing our neighbors of other faiths, both here and abroad, we certainly cannot foist consequences on Muslim global citizens. If we are not willing to assemble a modicum of contrition about our role in the rise of xenophobia, then we cannot pretend to act with our faith in response to a phantom threat of terrorism.
Let me be clear: White USAmericans, if we cannot admit that our angry finger-pointing at our immigrant neighbors is an outgrowth of the fear we have at an increasingly black and brown country, we will never experience the peace of forgiveness for this sin of othering.
Contrition is always necessary. It is how we suffer with Christ, as he suffers with us. But if we stay in a space of suffering and guilt, we become hurt people who hurt people. We make it about ourselves, and not about our neighbors. In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Now, let's do something about it.
Original image by flickr user, hugovk. Used under Creative Commons license.