Wednesday, December 06, 2006

First Person Singular, First Person Plural

During the last several months I have been studying the book of Nehemiah, as well as attempting to place it within post-exile Israel. It has yielded much that has been helping me deal with the difficult our circumstances in the Episcopal Church. There is little doubt that we, like the Jews in Nehemiah's time, are living among the ruins, and part of the task that God has set us is, like the faithful in that day, to find our way through thew confusion.

While there is much that has grabbed at me from this fascinating glimpse into God's guidance of his people through distressing times, it has been the prayers that Nehemiah prayed that have become a highlight. Not only is there an honest vivacity about them sprinkled throughout the thirteen chapters, but they are a healthy mixture of first person singular and first person plural.

When Nehemiah confesses his sins he also confesses the sins of Israel going back generations to the great disobediences of Israel which have led to this pretty pass in which they now found themselves, and then having confessed he prays, "Lord, what do you want me to do about it" (Nehemiah 1:4-11). That pattern of personal prayer is later taken up at a corporate level by Israel gathered in Jerusalem, and as they humble themselves before God making confession for the sins of their fathers and mothers in whose footsteps they tread, and then re-affirming their covenant with the Almighty (chapters 9-10).

I have been working on this at a time when I have become aware of the rumblings of debate in Britain as the country moves toward the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire next year. The Church of England has already voted in synod to apologize to descendants of those who endured the horrors of the Middle Passage and were enslaved in America and the Caribbean, but the pot has been stirred by recent comments by Tony Blair labeling the trade as "profoundly shameful" while stopping short of a full apology (

Last week there were pages and pages of short responses to this story on the BBC website, very few of which were willing to accept that those of us living today have any responsibility in these dastardly things that our forebears did (

Putting these two situations alongside one another, we are confronted with two different approaches toward sin, evil, personal and corporate responsibility. Nehemiah and the people of his time felt it incumbent upon themselves to confess sins they did not personally commit, but of which they were the heirs. Men and women in our time say what matters is the here and now, and there is no way that two centuries removed we can ameliorate the blame of those who went before us, even if we have been the beneficiaries of what they actually did.

A subject like this is so big that it is easy to lose the substance amidst sweeping generalizations so I will personalize it. I was born and raised in Britain, and it is very likely that my forebears have been in those islands since at 1066. Over the generations they intermarried with the Saxon people who were there before them, who in turn had intermarried with the Romans, Celts, etc., who they found there when they arrived. This means that t he soil of Britain and the blood flowing through my veins are hopelessly intermingled.

Our family have never been famous or influential people, and given the part of England from which we hail I doubt whether any of my forebears were actually involved in the business of enslaving people. However, despite being of humble origin, I am sure some of my ancestors smoked the tobacco imported in those slave ships, and also benefited from some of the advantages that ensued for English folks as a result of that huge segment of the "export" economy.

Furthermore, although the British Empire altered its stance toward slavery before it really started to boom in the 19th Century, I suspect the huge economic benefits of slavery did much to shape the nation's prosperity, from whose fruits I have obviously benefited. This means that in some way or other I am implicated in what happened and need to work out a faithful and biblical response to this reality. An apology seems a fitting starting point, but so also should I seek forgiveness before the living God for what happened, and then work to make sure that men, women, children, are not dehumanized in the same way in today's world.

But what bearing does this have on the situation in the Episcopal Church? As I seek to answer this question this is where I am likely to have brickbats hurled at me -- and probably from all sides.

Like everyone else I read the to-ing and fro-ing of charge and counter-charge, accusation and counter-accusation, and I during these last three or four years have being filled with such rage at times at the church's willingness to continually shift further and further from the anchorage of God's self-revelation that it has seemed to eat me alive. Like so many who share my theological perceptions of the wrongness of the direction we are taking, I have lashed out and blamed others for all that is befalling us in the process of wallowing in my misery.

Yet my reading of Nehemiah is forcing me to rethink if I am to be faithful to Scripture. Together with the men and women of his time, Nehemiah was prepared to accept responsibility for something that was patently beyond his influence. It had been a century and a half since the sins of Israel had resulted in the razing of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the carrying of the people into exile, what part did he have to play in all that? Yet he prayed, "We have acted very corruptly against you..." (Nehemiah 1:7), bringing all these failures and shortcomings to the gracious, heavenly Lord.

All of us who are part of the Episcopal Church have, I believe, to accept some responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves and to contribute more than fury or self-righteousness to find a way through this long dark valley. There has been a lot of "them" and "us" language used, illustrating just how deeply we are riven, and I have been as guilty as others in using words in this way. But thinking and speaking like this does nothing to bring any kind of resolution -- "we" is, perhaps, a far better word to use as we the shape our prayers, which in turn reflect our attitudes.

Yet I find myself being pushed further because Nehemiah's praying and the circumstances that emerged from his faithfulness suggest to me that we are unlikely to find a constructive and God-honoring way through these challenges until we can together start taking responsibility for all that has happened: all of us in the here and now, as well as the previous generations who set up this mess by action or inaction, belief and misbelief. The implications of being willing to think in such a way are huge, and I am certain that I have not even started to unwrap them, but what I am increasingly certain is that we are wrestling with the consequence of corporate, institutional, and multi-generational sins and evils, much as the Jews of Nehemiah's time were.

The circumstances with which we are wrestling are the product of, as well as advancing the cause of, the radical individualism that now reigns supreme and virtually unchallenged in our culture. Perhaps the time has come for us to be prepared to be much more critical of such individualism and where it might lead us.

I am constantly being asked how all this is going to end and I have virtually no answers. Like so many who share my convictions I have been marginalized by the denomination and have little leverage or influence. Which means that the only option left to me is to stand amidst the ruins and to pray; but not prayers of fulmination against "those of have done this," rather prayers of confession that "we" have failed the living God and all we can do is throw ourselves at his feet in sackcloth and ashes and ask for a crumb of his grace to be measured out to us, the least deserving of his people.

The question must be, is anyone prepared to join me?

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