Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Worship and Confession
distributed 3/8/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will be exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

A wise professor taught the course I took in seminary on the US abolitionist movement of the mid-1800s. He made it through the entire semester without talking about slaves. Rather, Horace was diligent in using the term "enslaved Africans."

His point in that language -- as he made very clear on several occasions -- is that the people who needed liberation did not just happen to be slaves, and their being slaves was not an expression of how things have to be. Human beings were bought, sold, owned, exploited and abused because of choices that other people made. They were enslaved by the actions of individuals, and by the laws and customs of society. It didn't just happen.

We need to be intentional with a similar shift in language and thought today. Species are not just going extinct, they are being driven into extinction. Asthma rates are astronomically high in some communities, not by accident, but because human-created soot and ozone are causing respiratory diseases. The planet is warming so rapidly because it is being heated by the greenhouse gasses released by our society. There are very specific causes for the things that we lament.

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Last week, I wrote about lament as an essential component of environmentally relevant worship. "As we lay ourselves bare before God in worship, we must touch the unspeakable agony of this time. If our worship is genuine, we must lament." The crying out, a gut-level expression of loss and pain, "is not analysis, or blaming, or problem solving."

It is essential that we lament, and it is also essential that worship goes beyond lamenting. The devastation of God's creation isn't happening without cause. It is not the way things have to be. It is not inevitable. Creation is being ravaged by the actions of individuals, and by the laws and customs of society -- of our society.

After we lament, we must move into analysis, and if we are honest we will admit that we are deeply complicit in the very destruction that we grieve. The world is not just falling apart, it is being damaged, depleted and destabilized. We -- individually and collectively -- are the ones who are causing that damage. In the context of the current crisis of ecological loss and environmental injustice, heart-felt confession is a necessary companion to lament. Our pain at Earth's distress should be mirrored in pain at our complicity in that damage.

In 1996, the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a major document, Hope for a Global Future: Toward Just and Sustainable Human Development. The book's introduction states, "The report is a confession of our individual and social sins of omission and commission. It is also a call for fundamental reforms in the churches, United States government policy, and the international economic order." The confession is spelled out as chapter after chapter details the causes and impacts of global poverty, inequality and ecological degradation.

Deeply rooted in the Reformed theological tradition, the Presbyterian document does not shy away from themes of sin and judgment. "'Sin' may be an antiquated word to some in our culture, but the phenomenon it describes is the ever-contemporary power behind economic depredations and ecological plunderings all over the world."

As Horace reminded us about slavery, the reports says, "Sin is manifested not only in individuals, but in social institutions and cultural patterns. ... Because they are pervasive and generally invisible, they compel our participation. ... Whether or not we deserve blame as individuals and churches for these social sins depends in part on whether we defend or resist, tolerate or reject, them."

Confession names our participation in the systems of devastation. It acknowledges -- from the heart and soul -- that many of the personal choices we each make are deepening and hastening damage to creation. Confession admits, too, that we each have a mix of intentional and unintentional involvement in a society which is inherently exploitative and destructive.

Confession joins with lament when we cry out that we are caught up in an economic and cultural system that gives us few positive choices. When we honestly evaluate our environmental footprint -- where almost all of us are demanding far more of the planet than can be sustained -- we must confess our personal and collective sin. Confession is an essential part of worship that is relevant to our situation.

Several years ago, I was scheduled to be the guest preacher at a local congregation. Based on the materials that I sent for the Sunday bulletin, a member of the staff wrote to let me know that, "in this church, we do not talk about sin or punishment. We talk about choices and consequences, but we do not use shaming language."

It seemed to me then, and it still seems to me now, that it is extremely difficult to deal honestly with the state of the world without mentioning sin. It is hard to have worship that is faithful and relevant without confession. "Choices and consequences" don't allow us to explore the depth of our participation in systems that are destroying the planet. "Sin" -- especially as an acknowledgment of systemic realities -- does not have to be a shaming term. Confessing our sin is a liberating act.

Programs as diverse as 12-step addiction recovery and the restorative justice movement recognize that nothing will change until those who have caused harm admit wrong-doing to themselves and to others. Without confession there is no accountability. Problems are blamed on others, or the situation is seen as inevitable and inescapable.

Confession admits that we are part of the problem. Confession opens the door to forgiveness, repentance and transformation. Confession is an essential step toward accepting the healing grace of God.

An article on the "Web of Creation" website affirms: "Through the rituals and events of worship, we find ourselves restored to right relationships. ... By confession and forgiveness, we seek to overcome our self-alienation and the brokenness of our relationships."

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Worship that is relevant in this time of environmental devastation will include confession -- serious confession. A superficial statement hoping for cheap grace won't do it. A generic unison prayer -- "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done" -- is not sufficient.

The sort of confession that is necessary is not easy or comfortable. It will create some conflict in most churches when prayers admit to our personal and collective addiction to the fossil fuels that are causing global heating and ocean acidification. Church members may hesitate when reading a litany which confesses that our prosperity and comfort are stealing life from future generations. It is hard for any of us to admit that we have been seduced and controlled by our materialistic consumer society. It is painful to acknowledge that we have denied and ignored our damaging impacts on creation. But that is as it should be. Genuine confession is supposed to be hard and painful.

Pastors and educators must be careful and intentional in laying good foundations for substantial and specific confession, especially in congregations that have tended toward feel-good theologies of affirmation. Before people can be honest in confession, they need to understand -- theologically and pastorally -- how admitting to sin is healing and transformative. In many churches, there will need to be pastoral education about the difference between being a "bad person" and participating in a destructive culture.

Confession is an essential element of worship that is relevant and transformative in this time of global crisis. We are part of the problem, and we must confess our complicity within our personal spirituality and in our collective worship.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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