July 30, 2020 by Steven Lulich
Even I and my father’s house have sinned.
One day when I was in the third grade, I came to school late (I don’t remember the circumstances). Apparently, there had been some sort of to-do either in the classroom or on the playground that morning, and the teacher was upset. I arrived just in time to participate in the consequent corporate punishment, which was to copy some sentences from the blackboard into our notebooks. I think the sentences were a kind of confession and a resolution to do better in the future, but that part of my memory is pretty hazy. It wasn’t a harsh punishment, and I really didn’t mind writing down the words (I was a pretty compliant child). But my pride was a bit wounded because I wasn’t guilty. I didn’t even know what had happened (and I still don’t).
In its own small way, my experience of corporate guilt and confession as a third-grader is really not that uncommon. I had a much more dramatic (though less personal) experience of this as a college exchange student in Germany. My group of exchange students, spread across several universities around Germany, met together for a field trip at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp outside Weimar. In addition to us Americans, there were a handful of German students as well as the “grown-ups” leading the exchange program and the tour. At one point, one of the German students realized that the six death camps (including Auschwitz) were all located in (Nazi-occupied) Poland. “So it wasn’t us!” he exclaimed. The “grown-ups” in the room immediately responded, horrified, “Yes, yes, it was us!” None of the people in the room was even alive during Nazi rule. The generation born in the aftermath of World War II grew up with the corporate national guilt felt by their parents, and they still hold on to it. In contrast, the younger generations increasingly feel oppressed by the weight of guilt for something that they had no personal knowledge of.
Late in the year 446 BC (“in the twentieth year” of the Persian king Artaxerxes I), roughly 140 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king. He was born in captivity, long after the final years of the Israelite Monarchies, which were destroyed because they “acted very corruptly against [God] and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that [God] commanded [His] servant Moses” (v. 7). One of the many remarkable features of Nehemiah’s career is his prayer of confession, recorded in chapter 1.
In this prayer, Nehemiah makes no distinctions. He does not say “some of the people of former generations have sinned”. He might well have done so – after all, the abandonment of God in favor of rank idolatry was not universal. Throughout the twilight years of the First Temple period, faithful prophets (e.g. Jeremiah), kings (e.g. Josiah), and citizens (e.g. the Rechabites, Jer. 35) were to be found. But like Daniel before him (Dan. 9), Nehemiah prays a corporate prayer of confession to God. He does not excuse anyone who lived in those days. He does not excuse himself, who had no part in those days. He instead places himself directly in the line of fire. “O Lord God of heaven … hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned” (vs. 5-6).
Nehemiah offers us a wonderful example of humility: he completely swallowed his pride when he made this prayer to God. He also offers us an extraordinary model of corporate confession of guilt. As the apostle Paul would later explain, “all have sinned” without exception (Rom. 3:23). It is as important as it is difficult for us to remember that, in spite of our existence within a highly individualistic society, the body of Christ is a single corps (the word “corp-orate” means “in a single body”). “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26a).
Likewise, the opposite is also true: “if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26b). Nehemiah recognized this, citing God’s promise of corporate restoration: “but if you return to me … though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there” (v. 9, drawing on Deuteronomy 30:1-3).
The Church is a body of redeemed sinners. Let us not forget that we suffer and rejoice, fall and rise, as a single body that stretches across both space and time. In “its appropriate time” (Ecc. 3:1), let us pray that we will swallow our pride like Nehemiah, joining with him in corporate confession without any excuses, so that we might also participate with him in receiving corporate mercy and blessings.