“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Growing up, I once had a neighbor who owned a muscle car. Throughout the week – early morning or late evening – he liked to go into his garage, start the car, and rev the engine as loudly as he could. It was shockingly loud three houses down. I can hardly imagine what it was like being inside the garage.
Sometimes when I would have friends over, our neighbor would go through his engine revving ritual. I would shout over the noise to my friend, "Sorry about our neighbor! He does that sometimes!"
Now, why did I say sorry? Was his loud engine directly caused by my actions? No. But when I invited my friend over, I recognized that I was inviting them into the relational-web of my neighborhood, and the noisy atmosphere it belonged to.
In the first chapter of Nehemiah, we find a leader who is grieved by the state of his people and nation. Notice what Nehemiah says: "I confess the sins we Israelites...have committed against you." He is an individual confessing his own sins, but he also confesses the sins of the community he belongs to. He confesses on behalf of himself and his family. He uses the word "we" throughout.
Sin, brokenness, mistakes – there are none that are committed in isolation; none that do not have ripple effects out into the world. We live in a world created by what was done before us. And what we do today – or do not do – affects those who will come after us.
Jews and Christians have historically rejected Individualism, the philosophy that puts single individuals at the center of all stories. In Scripture, communities exist first. Genesis 1 is all about the ordering of relationships. Only from within a community can individuals emerge. Both Communities and Individuals matter a great deal in Scripture. When I sin, I hurt the Community. When the Community is bent towards injustice, individuals feel the pain; individuals must own up to their own part within it.
When I see injustice, inequality, and inequity, an Individualistic response says, "That's not my fault; that's not my responsibility." A defensive, Communal response says, "That's not my fault; but it is my responsibility." But a fully Communal response, that recognizes I belong to web of relationships, states, "This is not only my responsibility – it's also my fault."
Can something a thousand years ago, ten thousand miles away be my fault? In the biblical imagination, yes. What was done by my ancestors was performed by me as well. The genetic material that makes up me was "in their loins" (see Hebrews 7:9-10 for a positive example of this). The antiquity of an action is no alibi for my innocence. Adam's fall was my own fall.
A bent towards recognizing systemic, communal, and historic sin is not a de-emphasis on my own culpability and guilt. It is not pitting Jesus' salvation of me the individual against Jesus' triumph over the principalities and powers.
Rather it is saying (and my Calvinist brothers and sisters should love this) I am more depraved than I realized. I am more broken then I ever imagined. I am in more need of salvation that my worst nightmares might suggest. And (this part can't be forgotten) Christ's salvation and work of new creation is broader, wider, deeper, and more significant than I've been previously led to believe. Jesus doesn't just want to save me as an individual. He wants to save the systems and powers and authorities that made the world what it is today. The new creation isn't just about a saved individuals. It's a whole new way of setting up the world, an alternative society where all relationships are reconciled and all the ways we've trodden over each other are made no longer possible.
So, when I confess my sins, I confess with the word "we." I confess what we have done, what we have left undone, and what we don't even know needs to be done.
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, emphasis my own).