The Perils of Confession as a Public Act
The Perils of Confession as a Public Act

The Perils of Confession as a Public Act

Nothing less than a seriously demanding church life is adequate to the conditions of today's world.

Appears in Fall 2017

We know that confession is good for the soul. It is a fundamental requirement for the living of a moral life, offering us a way by which we bring light and order to the turbulent darkness of our inner world. Without confession, we might find ourselves forever mired in an awareness (or, more often, a dim half-awareness) of our endless misdeeds and culpabilities, of all that we have done and left undone, all the ways we know ourselves to have fallen short in charity and faithfulness. A morally serious life is not bearable, let alone sustainable, if we are offered no respite from this ceaseless inner storm, no hope that we can move forward without carrying along with us the burden of our past malfeasances. Confession is part of the process by which we make a clearing for ourselves in the dark woods, and reconnect ourselves with the social world from which our transgressions have estranged us. This fact is beautifully signified in those liturgies (such as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) in which the passing of the peace, signifying the reconciliation of the members of the congregation, occurs after the general confession of sin. In this arrangement the one cannot occur until the cleansing effected by the other has taken place.

Anything so consequential must also be serious. Confession in its fullness entails speaking the unvarnished truth about ourselves to others. Not just the generic abstract truth about our fallen and broken status, as expressed in, for example, the general confession of sin in the Book of Common Prayer. That is a salutary thing, but not nearly enough. What is needed is a revelation about ourselves, and ourselves only, and about the particular sins we—and not somebody else in the past or present— have committed. It doesn't matter if we can claim that everyone else has done the same thing, it doesn't matter if our particular sins seem to rank lower on the scale than those of our neighbours. It is merely rank evasion to say, "I, like you, like so many others, have sinned." No, these considerations, while probably true enough, are very much beside the point. Here is the point: "If we claim to be without sin," in the words of 1 John 1:8, "we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (NIV). The focus must be on us, and us alone.

Confession in its fullness entails speaking the unvarnished truth about ourselves to others.

But, John continues, "if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (NIV). This sounds easy, but in fact it is hard, and should be. We are not talking about our confessing to having eaten a doughnut and gone off our diet. We are not talking about confessing to peccadillos or things that are small and anodyne, a form of confession that can amount in practice to a form of self-advertisement for one's own relative virtuousness and generosity. We are talking about self-disclosures that are costly, that carry with them the fear of a kind of social death, a self-exposure that runs the risk of rejection and ostracism, or at least a profound loss of respectability in the eyes of others, if we undertake to disclose to them something painful, personal, and humiliating. It is a wrenching experience. And yet the promise offered in John's words is real, the release is genuine. We see here a fractal representation of the great and perpetually astonishing logic of the gospel itself; it is in dying to self that we are born again to righteousness, to being-right-with God and others.

So we should confess our sins—but to whom? And when, and where, and how? John doesn't make that clear. And yet these specific considerations are of the greatest importance. To confess in the wrong way, or in the wrong spirit, to the wrong person (or persons), in the wrong venue, and at the wrong time: any of these can be as bad or ineffectual as failing to confess at all. To be sure, in a strict sense, sin is an offense against God, and only secondarily and derivatively against other human beings. Confession is therefore first and foremost directed to God. But if that were all there were to it, why would it not be legitimate to confess to God alone, in the privacy of one's own room? Just as we are taught to be reticent in public prayer (Matthew 6:6), why should we not be reticent in public confession?

The answer must be that an externalizing act is some part of the cost required of us. Prayer before others can be a disguised form of self-exaltation or empty display; that is why it is discouraged. But we must humble ourselves before others by making the act of confession "public" in some sense, and seeking whatever expiation or absolution can come of such public "dying to self." We have offended God with our sins, but we have also damaged the social body of which we are a part, even if no one else is aware of it. But "public" in what sense? How wide the circle encompassing the concept of "public"? Is the public arena the appropriate place to examine the sins of the individual? And does the desire to make the confession of sin into a more general public act make a false presumption that society at large has the power to punish all transgressions and absolve all sins?

Making a show of it

Not necessarily; and on the face of it, the urge to extend the benefits of confession into a larger social realm would seem to be perfectly in line with the injunction to make the church's influence ramify out into the world. But there are immense dangers lurking in the concept of public confession. Not the least of these is that public confession is liable over time to become ossified and routinized, with its practice gradually defecting to outward form, so that words and actions that were once pregnant with meaning become ritualized, and lose their pungency and power. Some would say this is precisely the danger faced by the general confession of sin, or the altar call, profound liturgical elements that are always in danger of degenerating into something rote, or worse yet, becoming a shtick, a mere performance or externality.

We are talking about self-disclosures that are costly, that carry with them the fear of a kind of social death.

It does not help that we live in a grotesquely confessional media culture, awash with television shows and journalism that specialize in the wanton exposure of what is personal, and even shameful; and moreover a culture that applauds this kind of smarmy self-exposure as a brave sign of honesty and candor and sincerity. The degree of genuine self-revelation entailed in such acts of self-exposure is slight to null. They are more likely to be routines that provide an outlet for the exhibitionism of the protagonists and the voyeurism of the audiences, and follow a familiar script that seeks to neutralize the power of shame and guilt rather than give them their due. Such considerations raise the question of whether what is being enacted is less a confession than a simulation or parody of one.

Even so, the existence of such spectacles sheds important light on the question of how to think about the public nature of confession; and they help us think more clearly about the question of "how wide the circle." If confession is not merely about the forgiveness of an individual, but is also about the effort to repair that individual's relations with others, then everything depends on the prior existence of a fairly thick moral consensus that unites members of that community. The movement of confession is to bring the individual back under the protective cope of that consensus. Absent the consensus, it could not happen.

One way of understanding a "Dr. Phil" television show is as a therapeutic ritual in which individuals are brought back into proper relation with the moral consensus— an entirely therapeutic and broadly secular and non-judgmental one—that is presumed by the show. A guest who fervently confessed to having performed acts that the show's host or constituency did not regard as bad would be exposing himself to a double measure of shame and frustration. A guest who disclosed highly confidential private matters to such an audience in the belief that his confidentiality would be respected would, well, would be a fool, who failed to understand the rules of the game. One of those rules being that when you are on a television show, you must understand that everything that is being said is being said primarily to be overheard. Every confession is therefore trying to be a shtick. The sense of absolution that comes at the end of the show comes, not from the access of divine forgiveness, but from the approving applause of the audience. Everyone who matters is in agreement. In that sense, such a show bears a generic resemblance to a show trial, whose purpose is never the determination and meting out of actual justice but instead the reinforcement of group solidarity, with forced confessions that serve as mere props and scenery for an entirely different drama.

Confession as ideological shtick

This understanding of confession, however, cannot ever be permitted to prevail within the church. Hence, we can begin to see the outlines of an answer to the question of "how wide the circle." For Christians, the appropriate circle is the church, and more specifically, the local congregation or parish. Even then, the appropriate audience may shrink to far smaller-sized groups, and perhaps to one or two people alone, lest moral contagion be spread rather than arrested. It all depends on the circumstances. But the existence of a thick moral consensus is essential, and that fact has profound implications for the church's ability to witness to the larger world about the virtues of confession.

Let me flesh out part of what I am talking about by providing an example. It was some thirty years ago that televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who was at the time an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God denomination, publicly and dramatically confessed on television to non-specific sinful behaviour. Those of us who were around at the time—I was living in New Orleans, where the sinful events in question had occurred—found his performance appalling and cringeworthy, and not least because he coyly revealed only that he had sinned, not that he had consorted with prostitutes, while using lurid information about one of his rivals (who was also consorting with prostitutes) to blackmail and destroy him. None of this was revealed in Swaggart's emotive and tearful "confession," a shtick perfectly staged for the cameras (and easily accessible on YouTube today). To get the dirty lowdown and find out exactly what he had done, we had to rely on the media, which related the story with undisguised glee. Elmer Gantry seemed like a paragon of virtue and moral consistency compared to this man.

Now it is reasonable to argue that things might have been even worse if Swaggart had cited specific incidents and individuals and deeds; I didn't call it the dirty lowdown for nothing. But at least such a spilling-out of the whole ugly mess would have evinced a genuine desire to confess and repent. The evidence suggests that his televised "confession" was what might be called a non-confession confession, akin to the confessions of those politicians who "take total responsibility" for their mistakes while blaming all specifics on subordinates, and refusing to resign or be fired. But what is less well known about the Swaggart affair is that he was subjected to a serious and responsible inquiry by the Assemblies' regional and national presbyteries—that is to say, by the church in its institutional form—which looked more deeply into the matter, in ways that they did not make public. They concluded that Swaggart was fundamentally unrepentant, and defrocked him and took away his ministerial license.

So it would seem that confession is a practice that is best observed in a private or quasi-private sphere, where thick moral consensus and strict structures of accountability are in place. Which is to say, in the church. No other institution can perform this role, and even the attempt to have others perform it is dangerous. Those denominations that assign confession a sacramental status implicitly understand the danger. The more confession expands its scope beyond such spheres, the greater the risk that it will become a pure performance, form without substance, a shtick that serves entirely different purposes than those confession is designed to serve. Jimmy Swaggart tried to escape accountability precisely by going public; it was the institutional apparatus of his church that clipped his wings.

But the ubiquity of public confession continues, and continues to corrupt the act of confession. We can already see the results around us. Never has there been more public confessing going on, and never has there been less being genuinely confessed to. All too often, such actions involve a show-trial-like affirmation of the zeitgeist. We might call this the communitarian fallacy—that it is the approval of the community, the accord with the general will, that absolves us of our sins.

But there are immense dangers lurking in the concept of public confession.

But confession can't be entirely private either, just me and God, and as for the rest of you, none of your bleepin' business. That would be a libertarian approach to confession, and that is equally inadequate, for it fails to recognize that we are a part of one another, are formed in community, and that our moral life in its fullness is inseparable from our membership in the body of Christ. It should be the goal of our churches to be, or become, the kind of communities in which confession is both practiced and protected.

Will the circle be broken?

All of which points to a realization now dawning on a great many Christians, including even some hitherto entirely nominal ones, that nothing less than an intense, whole-souled, and seriously demanding church life is adequate to the conditions of today's world. For many years we have been able to rely on a mainstream public culture that carried along much of the form and weight of Christian moral commitments, even if it did not consciously or explicitly carry the substance of them. But that is no longer the case. The culture cannot be relied on, not for now or for the foreseeable future, particularly in matters as delicate as the forms of public confession, where it distorts what it does not abjure entirely. Perhaps it could never be relied on. The persistence in our public life of pathological levels of guilt and moral accusation, accompanied by false forms of pseudo-expiation, which so often work to poison our common life rather than cleanse it, is an indication that the forms themselves have taken on a perverse life of their own, separated from the moral and transcendental convictions that gave rise to them.

This does not mean that the only answer is wholesale withdrawal from the world, although some might feel legitimately called to that. But it does mean the sustenance of thick and morally demanding ecclesiastical communities, willing and able to be "against the world for the world," if we are to carry these things forward and nurture them. We have settled for too long for an emaciated and diminished idea of what the church can and should be. Circumstances now have delivered us from that illusion. We should be thankful for that.

Our circumstances are new, but little about them is as unprecedented as it seems. Christianity has a long history, full of useful examples if we will but learn about them, coloured by different seasons that have presented its adherents with different tasks. Beneath it all, there is a rhythm of systolicdiastolic alternation, of the sending-out and gathering-in that are the grounding pulse of a living institution. We need to recognize where we are, and what is required of us. The current season seems to require that we rededicate ourselves to becoming the kind of community in which a moral economy of redemption and faithfulness has been firmly established; in which the dangerous work of confession is both genuine and "safe"; in which the well-being of our marriages, families, and congregations can radiate outward to uplift and ennoble a society that we continue to love, even as we encounter it more and more as a hostile and oppositional force. This is a challenging task, but it is not beyond our means.

Wilfred M. McClay
Wilfred M. McClay

Wilfred M. McClay is the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. He specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of the United States, and his book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America won the Merle Curti Award of the Organization of American Historians for the best book in that field. He was educated at St. John's College (Annapolis) and the Johns Hopkins University, and has also taught at the University of Tennessee, Tulane University, Pepperdine University, the University of Rome, and Georgetown University.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?