On General Priciples

A childhood friend of mine had a mother who yelled at her a lot. My mother yelled at me a lot too, but her yelling was usually connected to identifiable offenses, and I was invariably guilty of them. It was different with Tina’s mom. It was never clear what Tina had done to deserve the yelling she got. When she’d ask what she’d done this time, her mother wasn’t always able to specify.

Sometimes Tina could prove her innocence, but it didn’t matter. Her mother said that Tina had probably done lots of other things that had gone undetected, so she should just apply the yell to something she’d gotten away with; thus justice would be done.

They fell into a little routine: Tina would say, “Why are you yelling at me?” Her mother would reply, “On general principles.”

Tina was a miserable teenager. At the time, she blamed her mother for her misery, but she doesn’t anymore. She knows a lot more now about the stress and worry her mother was carrying trying to keep the family afloat. The yelling doesn’t seem as bad today as it did when she was on the receiving end. It’s like when you were small, and the house you grew up in seemed really big, but when you go back and look at it now, you wonder how your family ever fit in such a tiny place. The passing years shrink many things down to size.

Besides, we were kids in the ‘1960’s, bouncing off the walls, flouting authority and custom for good reason and for no reason—just on general principles. We gave our parents fits. It’s a wonder all they did was yell.

There’s not much point in the blame game anyway. Like me, Tina’s in her mid-sixties now, and at our age an injured attitude is not becoming. When she contemplates the rough texture of her own life in the intervening years, her mother doesn’t look all that bad. Stacked up against the injuries Tina has caused by her own flailing around, it’s not hard to let her mother off the hook. Forgiving her for “back then” is a way to forgive herself for now.

A few years ago at Tina’s suburban congregation, a disgruntled group of members presented themselves to the pastor to complain that the Confession of Sin in the weekly worship service was depressing. They had enough depressing stuff to deal with outside the sanctuary walls. They wanted it gone.

Dutifully the pastor convened a church-wide discussion about the Confession.  It opened Pandora’s box. It turns out a lot of people didn’t like the Confession. What did they do that was so awful that they had to beg for mercy every single week? They came to church to be uplifted, not to feel guilty.

And I suppose they had a point if you consider what the prayers printed in some Sunday bulletins direct us to confess. At my home church I once had to say I was sorry for causing famine in Ethiopia. One Columbus Day weekend, we lumped ourselves in with the Conquistadors, praying: “Oh God, we are all oppressors. We have enslaved your people and raped your land.” Another time we were made to say that we hated our bodies. Now, I don’t think I’m God’s gift to the universe in the conventionally-beautiful-body department, but I can’t honestly say I hate my body. I’m guilty of a lot of things, but I couldn’t ask forgiveness for that. The words stuck in my throat.

You’d think Tina, having been the proverbial poster child of bad-and-wrongness, would have led the charge to get rid of the Confession; but she didn’t. She vociferously defended it at every special meeting, and there were several. Maybe because she grew up knowing that she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, she has never chafed under the sinner label. She has never even minded being lumped in occasionally with the Conquistadors.

Not that she thinks she’s depraved or evil. She knows perfectly well that her ordinary sins are not the moral equivalent of enslavement and mass murder. But she also knows that, as one preacher put it, over the years she has collected a lot of sewage in [her] heart.

She’s wasted other people’s time, and they’ve wasted hers. She’s gossiped about them, and they’ve paid her back. She’s lied, lusted, coveted and taken the Lord’s name in vain. She keeps a little stash of idols on a shelf in her heart to prop her up in the day of trouble. She has hurt people, especially the ones she loves the most, and not just lightly, and not just once. She is far more self-preoccupied and far less grateful than is right for people like her who, although often, deeply and unfairly hurt, have also been unaccountably blessed, have more than they need, and have escaped untold catastrophes.

She likes to think that if at some point in her life she is faced with life-or-death moral choices, say, whether to hide Jews from the SS, she would choose the side of the angels. But she wouldn’t be surprised if she protected herself and turned every last one of them in. She understands what Mother Teresa meant when, after being lionized as a living saint by a pious devotee, the old nun tartly replied that, be that as it may, there was still a Nazi sleeping in her soul. In the same way, Tina is not confident of her own virtue.

Because she is a Boomer, she can’t help feeling vaguely responsible for everything. All the same, calling herself a sinner does not arise from guilt. Like another preacher once wrote describing himself, Tina thinks of her sinfulness more like a chronic condition – it’s not a great thing to be afflicted with, it causes trouble when it flares up, but with treatment it is survivable. Being a sinner isn’t anything singular or special about a person. It’s just true. She’s not sure why people find this hard to accept, and she wonders if ignoring or forgetting one’s human condition could be a set-up for something worse than everyday run-of-the-mill sinning.

So she argued repeatedly to her congregation that because we tend to forget who we are (willfully or otherwise), we need to be regularly and officially reminded and, occasionally, even made to admit big things we didn’t personally do, but that someone else surely did—human beings just like us when all the fancy wraps and steel-plated defenses are removed. If they did, then we could.  She did not want anyone to be deprived of a weekly opportunity to make a confession “on general principles.”

Out of love for him and a sense of fittingness, down through the centuries the Christian tradition has always claimed that Jesus was morally perfect, a human like us in everything but sin. He may have been sinless; I’m not disputing it. But in the gospels we see him line up with people who were not and accept from John a baptism of repentance. And God, we read, loves him for it—“In you I am well pleased.“ This was one of the arguments Tina used to defend the weekly Confession: If Jesus showed up for a Confession of Sin, even if it was for him a confession on general principles, why shouldn’t we?

She lost the argument. They did away with The Confession. Except in Lent. Apparently it’s okay to feel bad about yourself within certain seasonal parameters.

Tina still makes a weekly Confession all year ‘round, however. She confesses silently during the sermon. She’s tempted to feel guilty about not listening to it, but the truth is that it’s often a better use of her time.

Some of her best friends were heatedly on the other side of the argument. It hurt her a lot that some of the most adamant folks among the “we-are-not-sinful-people” crowd bad-mouthed and shunned her at coffee hour for months after the vote was taken. She really didn’t like being punished for no real crime, but she was philosophical about it. She just applied it to something she got away with.