Corporate Sin


This past week in my early-morning men’s Bible study we began looking at the book of Nehemiah, and the following verse just jumped off the page at me (1:5-7):

And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.

The underlined verses are the ones I want to reflect on.. Let’s put this passage in context.  Israel was taken captivity by the Babylonians back in 586 BC; after 70 years a group of Jews returns to the promised land, and at some point a man named Ezra goes back to rebuild the temple.  A few years after that a young man named Nehemiah becomes the cup bearer for the king – you know, the one who gets to drink the king’s drinks before the king to make sure they aren’t poisoned!  Anyway, some of Nehemiah’s friends go off to Israel and then return and Nehemiah asks how things are going.  But what he hears isn’t what he expects: things are not as good as he had hoped.  Now Nehemiah wants to return to help rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.  The prayer recorded here in Nehemiah 1 is his plea that sets the stage for him to lead a group back to Jerusalem.  But notice how he starts: after acknowledging God’s power and love Nehemiah goes on to confession.  And not just any ol’ simple confession, mind you – no, he confesses things like corruption and failure to “keep the commandments” God himself gave.

But here’s the really interesting part: he includes himself in the confession.  Notice the underlined words: “Even I and my father’s house have sinned.”  This prayer actually reminded me of Daniel’s prayer, as recorded in Daniel 9.   Daniel prays the same thing, saying, “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled….we have not listened to your servants the prophets…To us, O LORD, belongs open shame…because we have sinned against you…”  I think you get the idea here: both Nehemiah and Daniel include themselves in the sin committed by Israel.

I think this is something we miss today, this idea of individually accountability for corporate sin.  We do a great job in the church of looking at individual sin and calling people to repent for what they have done individually.  We talk all the time about how Jesus came to forgive individuals of their sin.  And these are all true, but there’s another equally important truth that we don’t every discuss: rarely do we talk, at least in evangelical circles, of corporate sin and our individual involvement in it.

I think that’s a reflection of how our culture has infected our theology.  As Americans we are very much focused on the individual and not as much on the corporate.  The evangelical church does a great job of pointing out the corporate sins in our culture, but we don’t like to include ourselves in that mix.  In an effort to not distract from my argument by picking a hot-button moral issue of the day to illustrate my point, let’s look at slavery, which I believe all my readers (regardless of whether they are on the left or the right) can agree on.  Slavery was evil and the fact this country allowed it at all was a monstrous sin.

Let’s assume, for a minute, that slavery was still allowed on the basis of one’s race.  Let’s also assume that the church by-and-large did not approve of or condone slavery but in fact stood against it.  Let’s assume that church leaders constantly brought it to the attention of the public, calling those who kept slaves sinners and calling on politicians to outlaw slavery.  (I say assume because we know that even the church didn’t always see slavery this way)  Now, here’s the question: do you think you’d hear the Church including itself in prayers of confession of slavery, or would we confess that “America has sinned and walked away from you, Lord God” while at the same time removing ourselves from that “America that sins”?

Maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t see that happening.  The church suffers from a Pontius Pilot complex – we warn sinners of their sin and then we wash our hands of them, saying “It’s their choice.”  We confess that “America” has sinned, but we wash our hands of any involvement by saying, “America may do this, but I do not.”  Yet that’s not how God sees it.  As evidenced by both Nehemiah and Daniel, we need to confess our involvement in the sin around us.  “Wait,” you say, “I don’t own slaves!”  That’s right, you don’t.  But are you trying to tell me that Daniel himself “acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from [God’s] commandments and rules”?  Are you suggesting that the one who was willing to face a den of lions rather than not pray is one who did “not listen to the prophets”?  Absolutely not!  Daniel and Nehemiah were moral pillars of their day, yet when they confessed their sins to Almighty God they included themselves in the sins of the nation.  And they included themselves in the consequences of that sin.

Corporate and generational sin are very real in the Bible – and their influence was not magically removed with the arrival of the new covenant.  How much of what we are suffering today as a country/state/city/church/family is a direct result of our corporate sins?  It is pride that says, “They may have done that sin by I didn’t.”  No, “I” (you) did, because we are a part of the body.  That’s not to say that God will not hold slave holders and traders to a different standard than he will those who are more passively involved because I do believe a just God will punish evil doers accordingly and differentiate consequences based on our involvement (or lack-there-of).  But here’s the real question: Do you really want to be standing in front of God trying to explain how so-and-so is worse than you are – how their participation in the sin was much more than yours?  Do you really want to just be “a little less sinful” than the next guy?  There’s an old joke about how to out-run a bear: just be faster than the slowest person in the group.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just be less sinful than the worse person on Earth.  Yet when we wash our hands of the corporate sin of the family/state/country to which we belong that’s exactly what we’re saying.

“But how can anyone ever be good enough for God?” someone’s objecting.  That’s the point: no one can.  All have sinned, the Bible tells us; through Adam all are dead (you didn’t eat the forbidden fruit in the garden, yet you are and will pay the price for Adam’s sin).  But Jesus tells us that what is impossible for man is possible for God. We can’t ever be good enough for God’s standards – because all of us are so infected and intertwined that even if one of us could live a perfect life we’d still be responsible for the corporate sins of the group to which we belong.

Enter grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved,” writes Paul; and I think that both Nehemiah and Daniel understood that, too.

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Yoda vs. Jesus Christ (2.25)


“Into exile I must go. Failed I have.”     – Yoda

That’s perhaps one of the most disappointing lines I’ve ever heard spoken in a movie.  It comes from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  If you watched the old Star Wars you know that Anakin Skywalker was the apprentice of the Jedi Knight Obi-wan Kenobi but then turned to the dark side of the force and became Darth Vader.  The final installment in this series is actually when we see how Darth Vader and Lord Sidious defeat Master Yoda and Obi-wan.  It was a fantastic movie – until the very end.

As the fight between good and evil reaches its climax, evil wins, but not because evil overpowers good.  No, evil wins because good fails to get up and fight, instead choosing to run.  That’s where Yoda’s statement comes in – he has been fighting Lord Sidious and falls down.  Quite honestly, instead of getting back up and fighting to the death he runs like a coward down a turbo-shaft and escapes.  Obi-wan does the same thing – once Darth Vader has been defeated in the fight, instead of delivering a death blow to his opponent to destroy this evil one, Obi-wan walks away to leave Vader to die; unfortunately for him (and everyone else in the universe), Vader is found in time to be saved.  It will be many more years until another Jedi Knight appears on the scene to right the wrongs committed by these two.

From a theatrical standpoint I found this terribly disappointing.  From a theological and philosophical one, though, I find it devastating.  I happened to turn on the TV tonight and I watched this scene from the movie (because it was on).  It saddens me – it really does.  The entire scene reminded me of the quote that reads, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

The philosophy found in the movie is absolutely anti-Christian (perhaps I should say Anti-Christ), yet I find that we often fall victim to it.  How many times do we neglect to stand up for those that need defense?  How often do we silently approve of conversations or jokes we hear (simply because we don’t verbally disapprove of them) at work?   How often do we fail to call ourselves Christians because of who may hear us and what they might think?

And this all goes back to original sin.  When we look at the Genesis narrative we all know that the first “sin” was when Eve took and ate of the fruit.  Yet if we read the text carefully we see that Adam was “with her” (see Gen 3:6).  I strongly believe that the great sin committed by Adam was his failure to stand up for what was right and protect Eve.  No, he wasn’t the one who “took the fruit and ate it” at first, but he also didn’t stop the woman from doing it.  And that is the sin he committed.  There were two sins – one of commission (what Eve did), but also one of omission (what Adam failed to do).  And, like Yoda, when Adam fell down he ran and hid.

But Christ calls us for so much more.  Jesus told Peter that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church; by describing the gates of Hell in a defensive posture, Christ implies the church would be on the offense.  Yet too often we fail to fight for what is noble and true and right; often because it is “too hard.”

John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”  His advice challenges all of us to rise from our slumber and do good, not run because evil looks too big.

If you need a scriptural command to not stand still when evil is afoot, read Obadiah 1:11, where those who stood idly by were considered as bad as those who committed the acts of war (see also James 4:17 and Revelation 3:15-16, or even the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 and Luke 19).

Let us never fall prey to the words of Yoda, for if we do we may never hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” by  our Master Jesus.  Find someone this week for whom you can do good.

You-Know-What On the Face (Issue 1.5)


Originally Written for 9/21/08, Issue 1.5

Last weekend I went in to get Chloe on Saturday morning from her crib.  She had been unusually quiet, but I knew she was asleep.  The evening before Melissa and I had gone out for a date night, so a baby-sitter put her to bed for the evening.

When I walked into her nursery she was standing at the edge of the bed, like she normally does, but she didn’t have on her super-excited “I’m so happy to see you!” face.  Instead, she stood there with this look of confused terror, as if to say, “Help me, daddy, something’s wrong and I don’t know what it is.”  She also had a little bit of dirt on her forehead and I thought, “What did you and Katie do last night before you went to bed?”

I then looked on the floor and saw her diaper laying there, and I quickly realized the dirt on her forehead wasn’t dirt at all.  She was covered, from head to toe.  Poor girl had somehow taken off her diaper, then made a mess in her bed, then, I think, she played in it during the morning because it was all over her hands, in her hair, and it was wiped on the side of the crib, the wall, and her crib toy.  Now I understood the look of confused terror.

I suppose every parent has these experiences, so this is probably nothing new to most of you.  I picked her up (very, very carefully) and took her to the bathroom, where Melissa was ready with the bath.  While Melissa cleaned the baby I cleaned the crib.

And the floor.

And the wall.

And the crib toys.

And took off the sheets…

And collected all the…

Well, you get the idea.

Anyway, I realize looking back that Chloe had a very appropriate response.  She was covered in filth, and she didn’t know what to do, but she knew where to go and to whom to look.  When I walked in she looked to me to help her out of the problem she had created.

Isn’t this the perfect picture of us and God?  We are covered in filth from sin, and when we turn to Him, He picks us up, tells us He loves us, and then cleans us up.  Chloe didn’t know how to clean herself up – in fact, she couldn’t do it even if she wanted, and so in her innocence she turned to the only ones who could – Mommy and Daddy – and we took care of her.  She had had her fun, now she realized she needed cleaning.

Too often in life you and I have our fun, too, playing in the filth of this world.  Only too late do we realize that what we’ve been playing in isn’t what we though.  But, unlock Chloe, too often we try to cover it up or clean up ourselves, only to make it worse.  We need to turn to God, lift our arms, and with an attitude of both sorrow and hope, call out to our “Abba”.

If I’ll pick up my little girl covered in, well, stuff, then I’m confident He’ll pick us up since we’re His children.  As much as I love my Chloe, I know He loves me (and you) infinitely more than that.

Let’s remember that this week.

You-Know-What On the Face (Grace Notes Issue 1.5)


Originally Written for 9/21/08, Issue 1.5

Cross Posted on Grace Notes

Last weekend I went in to get Chloe on Saturday morning from her crib.  She had been unusually quiet, but I knew she was asleep.  The evening before Melissa and I had gone out for a date night, so a baby-sitter put her to bed for the evening.

When I walked into her nursery she was standing at the edge of the bed, like she normally does, but she didn’t have on her super-excited “I’m so happy to see you!” face.  Instead, she stood there with this look of confused terror, as if to say, “Help me, daddy, something’s wrong and I don’t know what it is.”  She also had a little bit of dirt on her forehead and I thought, “What did you and Katie do last night before you went to bed?”

I then looked on the floor and saw her diaper laying there, and I quickly realized the dirt on her forehead wasn’t dirt at all.  She was covered, from head to toe.  Poor girl had somehow taken off her diaper, then made a mess in her bed, then, I think, she played in it during the morning because it was all over her hands, in her hair, and it was wiped on the side of the crib, the wall, and her crib toy.  Now I understood the look of confused terror.

I suppose every parent has these experiences, so this is probably nothing new to most of you.  I picked her up (very, very carefully) and took her to the bathroom, where Melissa was ready with the bath.  While Melissa cleaned the baby I cleaned the crib.

And the floor.

And the wall.

And the crib toys.

And took off the sheets…

And collected all the…

Well, you get the idea.

Anyway, I realize looking back that Chloe had a very appropriate response.  She was covered in filth, and she didn’t know what to do, but she knew where to go and to whom to look.  When I walked in she looked to me to help her out of the problem she had created.

Isn’t this the perfect picture of us and God?  We are covered in filth from sin, and when we turn to Him, He picks us up, tells us He loves us, and then cleans us up.  Chloe didn’t know how to clean herself up – in fact, she couldn’t do it even if she wanted, and so in her innocence she turned to the only ones who could – Mommy and Daddy – and we took care of her.  She had had her fun, now she realized she needed cleaning.

Too often in life you and I have our fun, too, playing in the filth of this world.  Only too late do we realize that what we’ve been playing in isn’t what we though.  But, unlock Chloe, too often we try to cover it up or clean up ourselves, only to make it worse.  We need to turn to God, lift our arms, and with an attitude of both sorrow and hope, call out to our “Abba”.

If I’ll pick up my little girl covered in, well, stuff, then I’m confident He’ll pick us up since we’re His children.  As much as I love my Chloe, I know He loves me (and you) infinitely more than that.

Let’s remember that this week.