Christians tend to downplay the concept of public confession. Christians tend to emphasize confession as personal and private. Even among those churches that practice the rite or sacrament of confession (penance), they accomplish it in a private chamber between an individual and a priest. The one who confesses need tell no one else, while the one confessed to is to keep silent the matter.
But here are two stories of Public Confession. Think about them for a bit.
Story 1. A few years ago, I visited the main mosque in Baguio City, Philippines, and sat with the imam as he expressed his understanding of Islam (in contrast to Christianity). He was generally pleasant, but clearly had some strong opinions about Christians. It seemed to be clear that he was being careful to choose his words carefully—being a good host. But there was one point where he was unreservedly positive about some Christians.
One day a group of Americans showed up at his office. He, at first, assumed that they had come to learn about Islam. They told him “No”, they had already studied Islam. Rather, they had come to apologize to him and other Muslims. Why? Because of the behavior of their government. They did not believe that the US government should go to war in Iraq. They told him that they were going around to different mosques to apologize. Then they were going to Iraq to act as human shields—attempting to protect Muslims from being struck by bullets and missiles.
I have to be honest with you. I have mixed feelings about the story. I have always had mixed feelings (at best) about the war in Iraq. However, I would not get involved in something like this group. And part of me sees their behavior as walking the edge between public dissent (a good thing) and treason (generally considered a bad thing). I also wonder if one can really apologize for a government. I have and am opposed to many things that my national government does, but to apologize for a government I cannot control— how could I (and why should I) apologize for it?
But this is not the point of the story. An Imam was amazed that American Christians would come all the way from the US to the Philippines to tell him that they think it is bad that their government is seeking to kill some of his spiritual brethren. They further said that they will take active means, risking their own life, to protect “their enemies”. Regardless of whether you agree with their politics, there is one thing I consider undeniable. This is a very power expression of demonstrating the life of Christ in action.
Story 2. This comes from the book “Blue Like Jazz” by Don Miller. Don attended Reed College as a young Christian. Reed College is extremely secular, and generally opposed to Christianity. During a bacchanalian-style college celebration, Don and his Christian cohorts on campus, set up a “confession booth”. A student came up to find out what they were doing. Possibly he thought that the Christians wanted him to confess his many sins to them. But it was just the opposite. They wanted to confess the sins of Christians to him. So one started to confess various corporate sins of Christians—Crusades, Inquisition, racism, slavery, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and so forth. The Christian told the student that since Christians are supposed to follow the example of Christ, these actions were without justification. He wanted the student’s forgiveness. The shocked student forgave him, and told him that what they were doing was “really cool”. The student went off and told other friends about the booth. Soon there was a large group of Reed students at the booth to hear the confessions of the Christians. The action opened up doors and hearts in the campus that had been closed.
Being honest again, I don’t know how meaningful it is to apologize for people I never met—who may not be at all sorry anyway. My ancestors were the Norsemen, who did many bad things. I don’t feel a whole lot of interest in apologizing for them. What benefit is that? There is also the side of me that is quick to say that the Muslims triggered the Crusades and were at least as bad as the Christians. There is a side of me that wants to point out that on many social issues, most other religions have similarly bloody hands. But that was not what the students at Reed College needed to hear. They needed to hear that Christianity is supposed to be based on the life of Jesus Christ. Christians fail all too often to live up to the standard of Christ. Christians would rather be judged by their ideals than by their actions, but understand that their actions are rightly judged by unbelievers around them. Christians don’t need to justify their own behavior, but need forgiveness.
Many companies have discovered a strange thing. When a company makes a mistake (in the eyes of the customer), the response to the issue is of critical importance. If the company is defensive and unhelpful, customers are lost. They may have created walking, talking advertisements for their competitors for life. One the other hand, if the company responds in a positive, forthright, customer-focused way to the issue, the customer is very pleased. Curiously, the company is likely to develop a more loyal customer base by dealing with a problem in a good way, than if they had done things right the first time.
The Bible says that confession is to precede worship. But maybe confession can also be an act of worship. And maybe confession can be an act of love… or even a form of outreach to the world around us.