“…the man at the end of the Protestant road…”

I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one.  He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.  Well, you can read and see what you think.

-Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow.

Berry’s take on the common view that Jesus didn’t found an “organized religion” is perfect in its whimsy and wisdom.

Confession, Huckleberry Finn, and Beloved Community

During my sermon from Nehemiah 1 on Sunday I paused and asked for reflection from the congregation.  I’d pointed out that, as part of his prayer, Nehemiah confessed his own complicity in the fate that had befallen his people.  In verse 6 he says, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my ancestral family, have committed against you.”  I asked for the congregation’s feedback because, in my experience, confession of the kind Nehemiah demonstrates is an uncommon experience for most Christians. Sure enough, one of our members pointed out how difficult it is for him to understand how he could confess on behalf of someone else.  This is, after all, what Nehemiah does in his prayer: he not only confesses his complicity, he also asks for forgiveness on behalf of his people who did not obey God’s “commands, decrees and laws.”  I relate with this members’ dilemma with this passage; it’s one I share.

In 1987 Wendell Berry wrote an essay, “Writer and Region,” in which he explored some of the themes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  One of these is “the yen to escape the Territory.”

There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land.  The probability is overwhelming that if we had belonged to the generation we deplore, we too would have behaved deplorably.  The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably.  Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination.  How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it?

Most of us probably don’t consciously think this way, but historical self-righteousness is likely our hidden assumption.  When confronting the ugliness of history it’s simply natural to imagine myself always choosing to fight with the good guys.  Surely I would have been one of the few enlightened white men who would have forsaken my privilege so as to stand on the right side of history.  Probably not.

As Berry notes, this self-righteousness severs me from a real historical narrative; I stand outside of history, superior to it.  This must be one of the reasons many of us find the idea of confession on behalf of our fore-bearers to be confusing or even intolerable: confusing because there is no real connection with my ancestors; intolerable because I would have acted differently in their circumstances.  In contrast, Nehemiah comes from a people and religion that understood their association across generations.  His confession on behalf of his people comes from historical humility.  He knows who he comes from and doesn’t question whether he’d have acted any better in their circumstances.

Without this clear connection with our history the idea of confession, beyond our own personal and immediate actions, will always feel like an unnatural stretch.  Is it possible to reclaim our history, including the undesirable parts that merit our confession?  Later in his essay Berry suggests a definition for “beloved community,” and this seems to me the most hopeful way forward.  The beloved community is marked by, “common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs.”

Willingly belonging to such a community places us within the trajectory of history.  Being rooted in common experience, effort and ground converts us from historical self-righteousness to a realization that we come from somewhere and have been shaped by those who came before us. Whether or not such a community is possible or even desirable for most people today is a more difficult question to consider, but without it the Biblical idea of corporate confession will always remain an odd concept.

Wendell Berry on Parenthood

But I have thought, too, that the term of human judgment is longer than parenthood, that the upbringing we give our children is not just for their childhood but for all their lives.  And it is sure the duty of the older generation to be embarrassingly old-fashioned, for the claims of the “newness” of any younger generation are mostly frivolous.  The young are born to the human condition more than to their time, and they may face mainly the same trails and obligations as their elders have faced.

Wendell Berry, “Family Work” (1980) in The Gift of Good Land.