Beyond the individual … towards the collective
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
"The windows of his room looked out into the garden, and our garden was a shady one, with old trees in it which were coming into bud. The first birds of spring were flitting in the branches, chirruping and singing at the windows. And looking at them and admiring them, he began suddenly begging their forgiveness too: “Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too.” None of us could understand that at the time, but he shed tears of joy.” (The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, Book IV, ch 2, A)
“…We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are and direct what we shall be…” (Common Worship: Daily Prayer, Church of England )
To someone with little experience of faith, Confession might seem strange. Children are taught that the Confession is simply saying sorry to God for the things that one has done wrong, in order to be forgiven. When I was little, this concerned me: those who have been forgiven go to heaven … so what if I died on a Saturday and had six days of unforgiven sins on me? I decided to say sorry every day just in case – and to cover my back it was worth trying my best at all times, hoping that would be good enough.
As a teenager, I was given a contrasting understanding of the Confession: that all our sins, past and future, had already been forgiven, so confession was less about specific wrongdoings than being remind of “our position before God” – that we have been forgiven despite our own unworthiness and should be grateful. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” (Book of Common Prayer, Church of England) While one understanding leads to moral perfectionism, the other leads to rehearsing unworthiness and reinforcing shame. Both of them, however, prioritise individual over collective responsibility.
After a stabbing attack in London Bridge, the BBC invited their audience to, “Have your say. Who do you think is responsible?”
The simplest answer would be that “the murderer alone was to blame”. After all, our society is founded on the conviction that we are all responsible for our own actions. If a child at school hurts another, it is they, and not their parents or friends, who miss their playtime.
However, nothing that we say or do comes from a vacuum.
It is helpful to assume that “in general everyone is trying their best” (Brene Brown, 2018, ‘Dare to Lead’). For some people, ‘their best’ means committing horrifying crimes – and when we investigate we generally discover that their life experiences have also been horrifying. As a school teacher, I see pictures of ‘murderers’ in the newspapers and cannot help but think of them as a child, as they once were. Children who frequently hurt others are generally themselves hurting, as too are their families. We are formed by what we learn from those around us, for better or for worse.
If someone commits a crime, are they responsible? Yes.
Are their parents? Yes.
Is their school? Yes – given that 60% prison inmates are functionally illiterate, there were definitely problems already at a primary school age**.
Is the government responsible? Yes – their systems and policies have their part to play. Is their place of worship responsible? Or their place of work? Their friends, their neighbourhood? Town planners and architects, designers, shop keepers and food producers?
Yes, yes, yes. We are all responsible for the ways in which we cause harm, as well as for the ways in which we perpetuate systems that contribute to the wrongdoing of others. It is often the ‘irrelevant’ details of our lives that coincide to create the societies that we live in.
Our society is so entrenched in individualism that we have forgotten the collective responsibility that intertwines with our collective humanity. In the end, apportioning out percentages of blame serves only to build up self-righteousness, while comfortably speculating from a distance.
A more compassionate society would not diminish the humanity of individuals who have committed crimes by Othering them with the labels ‘criminal’ ‘murderer’, ‘thief’. Nor would such a society punish these people so much as seek to help them so that they do not need to re-offend. *** Just as Zosima’s brother begged forgiveness even from the birds (above), understanding our communal responsibility renders individual blame and punishment illogical.
It is crucial, then, that the word ‘we’ in the confession liturgies (writing that everyone reads together) is understood collectively:
“In your mercy, forgive what we [as a community/ society] have been, help us to amend what we [as a community/ society] are and direct what we [as a community/ society] shall be; that we [as a community/ society] may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God.”
Understanding the collective nature of sin and responsibility allows us to understand the collective nature of Confession, and the need for collective change:
Rehearsing mindsets of individual shame does not change society for the better.
Remembering all of the individual things that I as an individual have done wrong does not change society for the better.
Moral perfectionism that pretends we are in no way to blame is an illusion.
Understanding our common humanity – that we are not superior; that we all belong to communities, cultures and societies; that we are all responsible – that, I believe can truly change the world for the better.
If saying the Confession each week starts putting an end to the blame culture of our society and providing more help for those who need it, then I will join in wholeheartedly.
We have all done wrong.
We are all responsible.
There is no shame.
*** In Glasgow, a change from treating drug offenders as criminals to seeing them as people who are unwell and need help led to “39% drop in repeat offending”. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-12403263 accessed 16:25 14/12/19
Photo credit: http://blog.ministryofpropaganda.co.uk/2016/04/24/birds-and-bluebells-around-aldermaston-wharf/blue-tits/