Recently, while traveling through Michigan, I attended Mars Hill for church one Sunday. Rob Bell was speaking on Genesis 2 -- our call to be co-creators through stewarding creation and how sin disorders the way that was meant to happen. (The sermon, The Importance of Beginning in the Beginning, is currently available for download). At one point Rob made a comment about sin and confession that struck me (I may not have the quote completely right here; this is just what I wrote down):
Confession is admission, recognition, declaration, and agreement that we have participated in the wrong order of things -- in ways that don't further the Shalom of God. And then we repent and say we want to return to the order that God wants.
The definition of confession that I have always heard restricts it to admitting particular sins. You told a lie, you confess it. But that view of confession doesn't truly cover all the ways we have participated in the disruption of true Shalom. It makes confession all about us and an easy checklist of do's and don'ts instead of our relationship with God and others and our call to participate in the kingdom of God.
For example, when we participate in systems that support injustices in the world we are disrupting Shalom. I would never go so far as to say that buying a banana grown by oppressed workers and with dangerous polluting pesticides is a sin in the traditional understanding of the word, but it is a failure to love and a disruption of the way things ought to be. So we can confess that we have participated in the wrong order of things, failed to support God's Shalom, and then choose to return (repent) to the order of love and stewardship that God desires. It's not about acts of individual sin; it's about an orientation of love.
But it is also not about guilt. Admitting, recognizing, declaring, and agreeing (confessing, according to this definition) that these acts of oppression and pollution exist and that we are participants in them is not meant to make people feel guilty but to establish the impetus for change. Unless we admit that there is a problem, things can never return to the way they should be. All too often those of us who talk about the need to confess our cultural sins (as with purchasing unfairly made items or benefiting from the past slavery of others) are accused of just wanting people to feel guilty. But in truth guilt should have nothing to do with this. Confession comes from a desire to serve God and see God's will done. Yes, we may feel bad or sorry for our actions, but change comes from positive vision, not negative feelings.
This perspective on confession is bigger and messier than we might be used to, but it better reflects the way God desires us to be. It is harder to think of life holistically and attempt to orient ourselves to living out the Shalom of God, but I think it is more reflective of truth and results in deeper commitments to the way of Christ.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.