Here’s another excerpt from Why We Love the Church. (Ah, the quick and easy way to blog–copy and paste).
If getting the story wrong, or at least less nuanced than it should be, is the biggest danger with confessing the church’s sins, the other big danger is that we are not really confessing any of our own mistakes. Back in 1940, C.S. Lewis penned a striking article for The Guardian entitled “Dangers of National Repentance.” His basic point is that it is always dangerous when we are apologizing for something we disdain in someone else. Some solidarity with your country or your own history can be a good thing, but is can also easily turn into the sin of pride where we “confess” all the stupid things our benighted forefathers weren’t smart enough to avoid. “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting of our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing—but, first, of denouncing—the conduct of others.”
More recently, physician and essayist Theodore Dalrymple has labeled this phenomenon the “False Apology Syndrome.” The syndrome is dangerous because it allows us to feel good without having to be good. We get all of the moral high ground that comes with confession and none of the personal pain. “The habit of public apology for things for which one bears no personal responsibility changes the whole concept of a virtuous person, from one who exercises the discipline of virtue to one who expresses correct sentiment. The most virtuous person of all is he who expresses it loudest and to most people. The end result is likely to be self-satisfaction and ruthlessness accompanied by unctuous moralizing, rather than a determination to behave well.” We get to feel grandiose for “our” guilt without actually having to change.
It would not take guts for me to stand on my soap box in Kenya and confess America’s high divorce rate, our alarming number of out-of-wedlock births, and the countless abortions we perform. Nor would it be big of me to preach a series of sermons apologizing for the church’s faults where I lament our wicked popes, our positive thinking Jesus, and our watered-down seeker friendly megaplexes. I already think all of those are wrong and I always have. And I have no part in them. What courage or humility does it take for me to “apologize” for these wrongs when none of them are mine? Such a sermon series would be viewed as thinly disguised disdain for other people’s problems.
Now, if at one time I had championed these things, then maybe my confession would be worth something. “When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England and to love her enemies,” writes Lewis, “he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother’s milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasm of his less-education fellow countrymen.”
Younger generation today face these same dangers with regard to the church. In confessing all the sins of the church, we have everything to gain and nothing to mortify. This isn’t to suggest that the church hasn’t gotten things dreadfully wrong, but it is to suggest that slavery and the crusades are not the things thirty-something Americans are likely to get wrong today. We would do well to listen to Lewis from seven decades ago: “The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class—its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue.”