In the Anglican tradition, of which I am a member, we are called to pray something we call the “Great Litany” every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during times of local or national turmoil. It’s a long series of call and response petitions that pray for God’s good ordering of our chaotic world, and praying it has brought me a lot of comfort lately. What I’d like to call attention to, though, is the opening petition. It goes like this:
Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of our sins: spare us, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.
Spare us, good Lord.(1)
Cheery, I know. Don’t you want to add this to your prayer life as soon as you can? Our Book of Common Prayer, though universally recognized as a literary masterpiece, is (in)famous for some prayers that—to our modern tastes—smack of rather unsavory grovelling.
But there’s something beneficial to opening our prayer in this way. The prophets inform us that it’s possible for us to offer up our prayers in vain. Isaiah warns his countrymen that, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa 59:2 KJV). Honestly, I find that a harrowing thought. Even scarier, Moses reports that
"the LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation "(Num 14:18, emphasis mine).
Apparently, God always finds a way to be both merciful to all and an exacting judge. Square that for yourself (Hint: Jesus). But that’s why we open the Litany the way we do.
Now, despite our culture’s pervasive individualism asserting that every man is an island, the biblical witness asserts the opposite: We all bear together in some measure the weight not only of our societal accomplishments but also of our communal failures. The author of the Torah doesn’t seem to feel the need to justify the declaration that the God of Israel is one willing to punish children for their parents’ crimes. Now, in America, the fact of God’s righteous judgment ought to make us squirm a little. Our fathers—let alone we—have gotten up to quite a lot of “iniquity.”
Nevertheless, most Americans have very short historical memories. Many couldn’t tell you who their “forefathers” even were. How are we—let alone God—to remember how they sinned?
Of course, it’s true that a good deal of Americans’ ancestors arrived on these shores long after abominations like Indian removal or slavery were abolished. But mine didn’t. We’ve been here a good long while. And sure, most of them might have been poor farmers or preachers, and—like the majority of white Southerners—never claimed to own an enslaved worker;(2) But for white families who’ve lived here long enough, there’s at least one ancestor guilty of “manstealing” as Paul put it (1 Tim 1:10). Each time I approach the Almighty Lord in prayer—my own sins aside—I’ve got plenty of reason to be quaking in my boots. Millions stand in the same position as I do, and the systems we live our lives in bear the mark.
What are we to do? Well, here’s the Litany’s closing petition:
That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, to amend our lives according to thy holy Word,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
Our prayer is that God would give us true repentance, the ability to amend our lives according to His precepts of mercy, love and justice. And according to the Prophet Ezekiel, this is just what God desires:
"But if this man begets a son who sees all the sins which his father has done, and fears, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong any one, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or increase, observes my ordinances, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live" (Ezk 18:14-17 RSV).
Now, notice: The person who wishes to escape the sins of his father must not only cease and desist from his father’s misdeeds, he ought to begin exercising habits that promote human flourishing and ease the effects on his father’s victims. Then, he shall surely live. Then, he’ll no longer be weighed down by the behaviors and systems which oppress not only his neighbors but himself as well. Then, he’ll make reparation, atonement for the sins of the past.
The call for such acts of reparation follows God’s demands for restitution of wrongs in scripture (Exod 21-22; Lev 5; Luke 19:1-10). Each and every Christian is called to this, no matter our station in life. I’d argue that if the white Church wants her prayers to be heard, maybe she should heed the message of her prayers and scriptures and obey her Beloved. Maybe if we lived the life we claim as our own, our congregations wouldn’t be hemorrhaging members.
Does this mean the Church should lobby alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates for government-run reparation programs? “Marxism,” etc. aside, maybe. Of course, some would counter that America’s similar ventures haven’t proven to be terribly effective, but I trust you to decide for yourself. Whatever the People’s representatives decide to enact, however, we—you and I, we imitators of Christ, we doers and not just hearers of the word—are called to take up our part in God’s re-creation of the world (James 1:22).
How might we start? It can look like an Episcopal seminary allocating funds to recognize those whose ancestors labored on campus. It can mean an individual donating to HBCUs, quietly, not letting “your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). It can look like standing in solidarity with our incarcerated brothers and sisters (Matt 25:36). It can resemble any number of healing acts.
I invite you to refuse the fear of scarcity and embrace God’s abundance. You can be a part of His remaking of the world, right here, right now by helping to repair what’s been broken. “It’s time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Pet 4:17). In this way, God will not “remember the sins of our forefathers” and will not “be angry with us forever” but give us “true repentance” and “amendment of life.”
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
1) Baruch 3:5; Ps 79:8; Lev 26:40; Isa 65:7; Lam 5:7; Ezekiel 18:19.
2) According to the 1860 Census, the states of the Confederacy had 316,632 slave owners out of a free population of 5,582,222, meaning 5.67% of the free population of the Confederacy were slave owners. Still, adding in the families of these white males implicates quite a few of us. Like Rt. Rev. Will Willimon told me at our first meeting, “As a Christian, it’s good you’re from South Carolina—you already know you’re a sinner.”