Lewis in my opinion is right to warn of some of the self-righteous dangers of an endeavor of group repentance. Often this can be confessing the sins of one’s neighbor, rather than your own sins. In those cases “we” really means “they.” Thus, there must be some reflection on the personal nature of such a confession.
C.S. Lewis did much of his best writing and reflection in the era during and after the Second World War. This essay, “The Dangers of National Repentance,” an essay in Found in God in the Dock, was written in response to a drive to declare a national repentance and confession of sin for the guilt of England’s part in the war.
A Summary of Lewis’ thesis:
“They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England.”
But Lewis wonders: “What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine.”
And goes on to ask: “Are they, perhaps repenting what they have in no sense done?”
A few more relevant lines:
“Men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable.”
But Lewis then goes on to illustrate the perils of doing so: “The young man who is called upon to repent of England’s foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor.”
So that: “The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing – but first of denouncing – the conduct of others.”
Lewis goes on to reflect that, “A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’: what they mean is ‘Let us attribute to our neighbor (even our Christian neighbor) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.”
This doesn’t mean that Lewis rejects that there may be a need for national repentance, or that national repentance may need to be preached by the church (“It think it is” says Lewis). Rather, Lewis goes on to say that national repentance may be necessary, but only with a discharge of “reluctance.” Just as one should not gain too much delight out of rebuking one’s mother.
To each of my readings, I hope to give some reflections to how this might be relevant to the current question before the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) with regard to a denominational repentance. Though I would also recommend this essay to read it for yourself, since the essay is short (5 pages). I think all PCA elders would gain something from reading it. My reflections on Lewis’ essay:
First: Lewis in my opinion is right to warn of some of the self-righteous dangers of an endeavor of group repentance. Often this can be confessing the sins of one’s neighbor, rather than your own sins. In those cases “we” really means “they.” Thus, there must be some reflection on the personal nature of such a confession. Is this the confession of a true acting collective whole, or the acting of one group or generation against another? Lewis warns of the violation of the Fifth Commandment if one is labeling something sin that is not, or just airing the sins of one’s fathers unnecessarily. So two lessons from this point:
- One must be careful that in covenantal repentance, you are not confessing the sins of others, especially without their permission.
- One must guard against passion for the sins of others, that distracts from one’s confessing of his own sins.
Second: On the other hand, Lewis is also right to say there can be need of national repentance. Nothing in Lewis’ essay, nor in the Scriptures, bars national repentance or what I would call “covenantal repentance” of a group or body. If a group is constituted as a collective, and acts for the whole, then it commits acts for good or ill. Those acts should either be celebrated or repented of, respectively. Thus, there comes times when a group must repent of sinful acts and actions taken by the whole.
The Lesson: Covenantal repentance is valid, yet even when necessary must do so, it should have a tone of solemnness and perhaps reluctance. We ought to honor our fathers, even if we must confess their and our iniquities as one body.
Jared J. Nelson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of New Life Presbyterian in Hopewell Township, Penn. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.