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Sins of the fathers

Written by Rebecca Trotter : March 12, 2008

repent.jpgI recently came across a rather unfunny piece by someone named Diogenes on Catholic World Daily which is meant to mock those who have or would like others to, ask for forgiveness for the sins of our ancestors. A clip from the piece:

“It’s back in style: the political fashion of issuing official “apologies” for wrongs committed by others — especially long-dead others — in order to cash-in on the compassion sweepstakes and dutch rub the opposition in the process. Australia’s Labour Government apologized to the aboriginals last month, and now Canada appears ready to follow suit. Perhaps the following Mea Culpa, first offered in response to the initial wave of vicarious mortification, might bear repeating:

“Bless me, Father, for my ancestors have sinned. It has been two episodes of 60 Minutes since my last confession.

“– My parents were unwelcoming of government mandated integration in their working class neighborhood. At least, I’m not absolutely sure they were unwelcoming, but they had a statue of the Sacred Heart in the parlor, and that was typical of the kind of people that put property values before justice in those days. For these and all their other sins of bigotry I ask pardon and penance.”

I think it’s safe to say that someone is doing a really, really bad teaching the flock how God wants us to deal with the sins of our ancestors. The gap between what God calls us to do and how many Christians, even good faithful Christians, think about what is the right way to deal with the sins of our for-bearers could hardly be greater. A commentator on the Catholic World News sight where the item was put up had this to say:

“Unfortunately the ‘apology game’ has been a temptation that the Church has yielded to. The spirit of the world is too much with us. It’s one thing to acknowledge with regret unsavory things and human sinfulness in the course of history. It’s quite another to apologize for them as if there were collective guilt to be atoned for by Church or government. Good intentions do not make this work. Bad intentions like political expediency make this odious.”

Hmmm . . . Now, compare that attitude with scriptures:

“Those of you who are left will waste away in the lands of their enemies because of their sins; also because of their fathers’ sins they will waste away. . . But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers - their treachery against Me and their hostility towards me which made me hostile towards them. . . I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham” Leviticus 26:39, 41-43

On the twenty fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their head. Those of Israelite decent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. . . for a forth [of the day] they confessed. Nehemiah 9:1-3

“See, it stands written before me: I will not keep silent, but will pay back in full; I will pay it back into their laps - both your sins and the sins of your fathers,” says the Lord. Isaiah 65:6-7

O Lord, in accordance with your righteous acts, let now your anger and your wrath turn away from you city of Jerusalem, your holy mountain; for because of our sins and the inequities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a reproach to all those around us. Daniel 9:16

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. . . how will you escape the sentence of Geehenna? . . Upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Matthew 23:29-32, 35

Ouch. How can we modern Christians be so totally off track in our thinking about the need to ask for forgiveness for the sins of our forefathers?

No doubt the radical independence which is the bread and butter of our culture has a lot to do with it. We like to think that we are self-contained entities who will be dealt with solely on the basis of our own actions. To a certain extent, there is some truth to this. After all, the bible also says, “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sins.” Deuteronomy 24:16

I think the second reason the righteousness of confessing our father’s sins is anathema to us is human pride. Quite often we indulge in our human pride by looking at those around us who are falling short. We reassure ourselves that we are good people, not only for not falling short in those particular ways, but for being brave and honest enough to see the mess around us and call it what it is.

Yet scripturally, God seems to expect that we will confess the sins committed by those who went before us, who we may have had nothing to do with. Why? Two reasons really.

The first and easiest to understand is because sins have consequences. And those consequences don’t go away just because the people who committed them are no longer here. And while we may not have committed the sin, we do have a duty to deal with and try to set right the consequences of the sin of our ancestors.

The second reason is because repentance is the best cure for the curse of human pride and inculcates the heart with a sense of compassion and grace. It is the cure for what ails us. As anyone who has had to go through a genuine confession of sin before God and man knows, it is not enough to simply say, “sorry I did that” and move on. True repentance requires us to fully acknowledge exactly what it is we did and the pain and suffering it caused. When we know, somewhere in our hearts that our fathers’ sins had a pivotal hand in helping to create the very things we take some measure of pride in condemning, it is so much harder to continue in our righteous condemnation.

Here in America, we know of many of the sins of our fathers. We can see the consequences of those sins all around us. Yet there is a real resistance to acknowledging and seeking forgiveness for the sins of our fathers. We think those who suffered from those sins should heal themselves and we should be free to continue to occupy our thrones of judgment - or even deny the sin as a reality to begin with.

Perhaps we ought to take another look at how God would have us deal with our forefather’s sins and do it His way for a change. After all, if you look at all of those verses above, we find that whether we realize it or not, until we confess the sins of our fathers, God’s judgement for those sins remains upon our heads. Yet those same verses tell us that when God’s people seek forgiveness not only for their own sins, but the sins of their fathers, God is waiting eagerly to rain affection and blessings down upon us. And I think we’re in need of some affection and blessings right now - don’t you?

Author Bio:: Rebecca Trotter is a writer living in Western Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Keith and their four children. She is a regular contributing writer for Hope Today Magazine. She also blogs at www.theupsidedownworld.wordpress.com




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    I really enjoyed that post. You would think that religion would be better able to withstand the tides of fashion, but I suppose even the religious want to belong.
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    I, um, actually think that guy's sort of right. The Scripture passages you cited are directed toward apostate Israel, who had a specific calling within her covenant with God, and had broken that covenant. Jesus' prophetic witness to the chief priests and Pharisees could be summed up in his parable of the wicked vinedressers. "The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it." The subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in the 1st century marked the end of the end of that age, fulfilling Jesus prediction that "on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth..." So I don't think it's a timeless universal that we can pluck out and use to justify the belligerent guilt manipulation going on in the world and also the church. As members of the new covenant Israel of the new creation order, we have a better means of addressing wrongs of past generations. We have the cross as witness that this vicious cycle of inherited guilt is ended, the dividing wall between social groups broken down. No further groveling required. And we have a chance to live and demonstrate an alternative by our relentless practice of love. A healing love, directed towards those who have been hurt by some our ancestors, yes, but a guilt free love, which is the best kind. But I'm open to correction......
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    As members of the new covenant Israel of the new creation order, we have a better means of addressing wrongs of past generations. We have the cross as witness that this vicious cycle of inherited guilt is ended, the dividing wall between social groups broken down. No further groveling required. And we have a chance to live and demonstrate an alternative by our relentless practice of love. A healing love, directed towards those who have been hurt by some our ancestors, yes, but a guilt free love, which is the best kind.


    I mostly agree, but disagree on a key point (or two). I believe that the cross is a witness to the fact that the dividing wall between us and God is broken down, but the words of Jesus as well as other scripture imply to me that the forgiveness of the cross does not relieve us of the duty of seeking forgiveness from each other.

    Jesus instructed us that if we realize that our brother has something against us, even while doing our religious duty, we should go resolve it. The entire book of Philemon is a letter trying to reconcile two people who have an unreconciled conflict by appealing to both justice and mercy.

    The problem is that there is unreconciled confict in our society. Groups that we are a part of have wronged other groups, and as a group we have rarely sought forgiveness. It's easy for us to seek justice (eg giving people rights that they have been denied, abolishing unjust laws, etc), those things make us the hero, they make us the good guy. Seeking forgiveness is harder, because it makes us feel bad, and forces us to admit that we and/or the group that we are a part of, have been the bad guy.
    But the way of Jesus is to admit when we have done wrong, seek forgiveness for it, and go forward and do right by demonstrating our relentless, healing and guilt-free love.
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    Actually, my allusion to the dividing wall is from Ephesians 2, which describes how Christ abolished the enmity between two hostile social groups, Jews and Gentiles, and made the two into one new humanity. This is a huge theme in the Pauline epistles, yet never once does he call upon Greek and Roman Christians to apologize to the Jewish Christians for the terrible things their ancestors did to them. It is striking also that Jesus points out the Pharisees' guilt by their claim that they were descended from those who killed the prophets. If they were on board with Jesus' agenda, they would disown their fathers, because Jesus came to lead his people on a new exodus, a new way of being Jewish, to make a break with their past. In the same way, I think we are called to abandon all of our solidarities with any social group that has any claim upon us, to come out and be separate, to consider our national/tribal/ familial heritage as trash (Phil 3) in comparison to the glory of our belonging to God's united family.
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    Are you saying then, that because our national/tribal/familial heritage pales in comparison to our Godly heritage, that as Christians we are not being called to work for the reconciliation of conflicts that our nation, tribe or family are a party to?
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    I was not arguing whether or not we are called to work for reconciliation, but from what vantage point. Do we identify ourselves with the oppressive/oppressed parties, or do we see ourselves as aliens and strangers within their midst? On the other hand, if the oppressors claim to belong to Christ and do their deeds in the name of Christianity, then I would feel burdened to ask forgiveness, because I belong to that body. But if the deeds were done in the name of the Pax Romana, or American democracy, or the KKK, my stance would be closer to that of a foreign missionary coming upon the scene, because I do not consider myself incorporated with any of those groups.
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    So if I'm understanding you correctly, the issue is an issue of identity rather than an issue of reconciliation. Is that correct?

    So, it is ok for those affiliated with the Church, to seek forgiveness for acts done by those who claim to belong to the Church in the name of the Church, would that be correct?

    Similarly, would it be ok for people who are members of the Australian government apologizing for the acts of those affiliated with the Australian government done in the name of the Australian government?

    In a similar vein, if Australians in the past have done wrong in the name of Australia, would it be ok for Australian Christians to apologize for that since they share the identity of Australian? Or are you saying that once someone is a Christian they are no longer Australian?
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    I have a question too. Some of my ancestors are Native American. Some are white. Would it be ok if I apologized to myself? :)
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    lol If it helps you reconcile some internal conflict go right ahead :)
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    Personally speaking, I don't feel it is helpful to be bogged down in guilt, but nor can I act as though I have a clean slate.

    The sad reality is that, as a white dude living in America, I was born profoundly privileged...even though I grew up in the lower class or at least lower-middle class. My place in the world--and in the Church--is lofty. I live at the pinacle of a great mountain that is made of the bones of the oppressed. Native Americans and African Americans and Latino Americans and others died to give their bones to my mountain.

    I was born on this mountain...so in a certain way of thinking, its existence isn't my fault. But I notice that the decedents of those entombed in my mountain are all much worse off than me. When White America was being created on the backs of African, Native, and Latin Americans, it left fewer resources for them to pass onto their children. So when my ancestors sailed across from Europe and were able to cheaply and easily buy farm land to start their towns and farms, there were entire dispossessed and struggling ethnic groups already here who couldn't buy that land--for a variety of reasons.

    Not my fault, I suppose. But I live on the mountain. And I can't help but think that it sucks that Natives and African Americans and Latin Americans and others live at the foot of my mountain. And I can't help but think it sucks even more than I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and my brothers and sisters live below.

    So what can I do? I can be downwardly mobile. I can live in solidarity. I can be hospitable. I can be generous and place my spiritual kinship about ethnic ties and racial ties and even family ties. I don't do this out of guilt, but because I honestly believe that I can experience more of the Kingdom this way, and experience more of Jesus this way. And I can recognize that the American Empire is a white-washed Nation. Underneath the lime-wash is an ocean of blood and oppression. Not that America is a bad empire as far as Empires go.
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    Haha, that was a great answer, Richard. And to answer your questions- I can't really speak for anyone in Australia, I don't want to judge anyone's conscience. What I originally meant was that the cross offers an alternative way of dealing with the conflict between social groups to the guilt manipulation so prevalent today. The gospel calls us to make a break with the past, to disown our empires and cultural pride, and take on a brand new identity where the last are first and servants the greatest. I think that is what Mark is getting at by downward mobility. Seeking leastness is the way to bring reconciliation. By the way, good thoughts, Mark. And thanks, Richard, for taking the time to engage me in conversation. I get so little adult interaction lately, lol, it really is appreciated. Not that I don't love talking with my little ones, of course. And I really do agree with the greater substance of this article. It was very thought provoking.
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    Sara, thank you. It's been really cool engaging this topic with you. Plus, you have a sense of humor, it makes pretty much everything better.
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    I think the real issue is to whom the Church confesses its sins. Is the Church required to confess its collective sins to a fallen sinful world that refuses the same obligatory confession and repentance for the persecution and murder of Christians throughout history? Or should the Church confess its collective sin to her King?

    As I read the post, one thing became very clear to me, far too many of us cannot draw a separation between the Church and world governments and nations (even when those nations committed atrocities under the guise of being 'Christian' though their fruit spoke otherwise).

    On a more personal note, I have seen this issue first hand where an older black couple so hated white people for the sins of the past that they said they could never accept a white orphan child into their home, and somehow when I said that children are not responsible for the evils of the past I became the bad guy. Yet if I followed their logic I would have to hate myself because I am of British and Irish descent (no need to go in to detail about the history there), I am also Swedish, Swiss-German and Polish (the Vikings committed horrible atrocities against much of Europe). Being of European descent primarily, I am also Native American (and I definitely do not have to talk about that history). That being said, my wife is German and Native American primarily, but some of my ancestors were killed in concentration camps in Poland by the Nazis. Is my wife answerable for that sin? Must she confess the sins of the entire German nation of the 1930's to me? (Read Ezekiel 18:20 in contrast to what was cited in the post. Is there a tension related to this issue?)

    The point I am making is that where the Church recognizes it has sinned whether in the present or the past, it must confess and repent to God, but no human nation is the Church, and therefore, biblically speaking God has his own way of bringing them to judgment for their sins (read Romans 1-2 for one example).
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    James,

    While I don't disagree with what you are saying, I think it doesn't address part of the problem. The issue for me isn't simply the sins of the past, but the way in which I benefit or are harmed by those sins.

    In other words, we can agree that the white baby isn't responsible for the sins of his parents. But being white in America means that he is likely to benefit from the old sin of slavery. A black baby is likely to suffer for that sin.

    The issue isn't about repenting for past wrongs, but striving for a future where the such inequities are reinforced by the church. When big affluent white churches spend all their resources on reaching out to affluent whites while the minority churches down town struggle to make ends meet, they don't need to repent for slavery. They need to give up the power that is granted to them by the society built upon slavery.
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    So what do you advocate for the solution? Socialism, redistribution of wealth as payment for sins, self-hatred?
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    By no means. But we can't act as though we have a clean slate. We can't simply move on and shrug our shoulders.

    Redistribution...perhaps, but only in a Christian sense of sharing of resources. Not as a payment for sins. Nor out of self hatred. But out of a desire to live faithfully as the Church.

    I'm sorry if I'm misreading you, but I can't help but sense a bite in your last statement, James. There is no need for that.

    What do you recommend? Is there a balance between repentance for the sins of the past and dismissal of the unjust state of things?
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    In my experience, it's not so important which group of people I associate myself with, but which group of people other's associate me with. In Kenya, people were killed just because their name or features associated them with the president's tribe. It had nothing to do with whether those people voted for the president. In
    Tibet Han and Muslim Chinese are being harmed because of their ethnic background, even if they have no particular influence on government policy.

    I have found it is easier to forgive when someone apologizes to me, even if the person apologizing really doesn't understand the consequences of their actions. I have also benefited from apologies from people who apologized on behalf of others even though they personally didn't harm me. True forgiveness is difficult and I'll take any help I can get.
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    I meant nothing personal by my last comment, nor was I inferring anything about you. I have seen friends go that route in their thinking, and as a student of history know that they are putting their trust in a political system that has led to some of the worst acts of genocide and atrocities ever committed in human history. I was just throwing that option out there because it is becoming a common route for many who are buying into marxist-type liberation theology.

    I am not sure how to deal with the issues related to the fact that my ancestors immigrated to this country to flee war, economic hardship, etc. Many of the institutions and sinful social structures were already in place by that time and had been abolished or changed long before I was born. I guess the fact that my ancestry is so culturally and ethnically diverse and that I am well aware of the oppression and/or persecution they faced after coming to this country that I can only say, like Jesus did, Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

    The root of the problem is that the Church historically and in contemporary culture has relegated its duty to care for the widow and orphan, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, bandage the persecuted, and call the outcast to his/her inheritance in the Kingdom of God to human governments, which because they are creations of man are sinful fallen social structures (even the best of them) and they usually end up making things worse. I am not sure how to get that genie back in the bottle on any large scale. That is why I think we are witnessing the shift to more incarnational, missional type Christian communities which are modeled after the example of the early church. This is perhaps the best way to begin to address such a big issue: one neighborhood at a time.

    So, why I mourn for the sins of the past and pray that God will forgive us for what we have done to others who are also created in the image of God, I try not to develop a messiah complex where I begin to think that somehow I am personally responsible for saving the world from its sin. Jesus already accomplished that and all we can do is point people to Him through our words and our actions, and trust that He has the power to conform people to His image and in doing so these issues should disappear within His community. I think sometimes we just get in the way of the work entrusted to His Spirit, so that we can have a community built in our image that does the things we want it to do and looks the way we want it to look.