Towards a Constructive Penance: On Accountability, Guilt, and Power

by jdavidcharles

I find it interesting that evangelical Christians still practice confession. Confession is, of course, a Roman Catholic practice that developed early in the medieval era and was codified as sacrament at the Lateran Council in 1215. Sure, the formation has changed, certainly it is unlikely an evangelical would use the phrase “the Sacrament of Penance,” but the idea of a small group, accountability group, pastoral counseling, etc., still abounds. I find this word ‘accountability’ particularly telling in terms of how it differs and yet is in complete alignment with the medieval practice. By contrast, penance could (and often did) take the form of inquisition and torture (consensual or otherwise), and if we were to take a look at medieval doctrines of the body, ecclesiology, and sexuality I think we would see why this was. The contemporary evangelical church shies away from such a direct denial of the body—although American consumerist Christianity (and I include myself in that label) definitely has its fair share of body-shaming and hatred. Also there is skepticism as regards church hierarchy, i.e. confessing to someone in particular. We don’t like the idea and, perhaps justifiably so, of someone with that sort of absolute knowledge.

However, I still think the comparison is ripe with similarities. For instance, although no vertical hierarchy, there is still sort of a lateral hierarchy (if this makes sense)—although there is no longer a direct person who must know, i.e. a priest (although pastoral counseling can look remarkably similar to this), there is a community itself which is in possession of knowledge, and it is still essential for the person confessing to confess to this community. In other words, rather than punish the individual for erring, the individual is condemned rather to feelings of inadequacy and guilt for keeping secrets. These communities are founded upon knowledge of the other, ‘accountability,’ rather than punishment. What is fascinating is how this takes the language of ‘truth.’ The implication is that there is some defining ‘truth’ of the individual, typically sexual but not exclusively, that is hidden or unseen and one should be open with the community and the community should know (the language is typically that of ‘brokenness,’ i.e. the image of the church as hospital, you must confess in order to be healed). In order to be ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ one cannot ‘hide’ one’s ‘brokenness’ from the community. Thus one reveals the ‘truth’ to the community, the ‘hidden’ side that no one sees ‘except God.’ This invocation of ‘God knows’ is a roundabout way of saying that the community of believers, i.e. those who ‘have’ the Spirit and who Christ ‘lives in’, already *really* knows. God knows. That’s what matters. So confess it to us and be ‘real,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘broken.’ That’s what ‘counts’ (thus ‘accountability). There is something (sexually) perverse at your core, God knows it, we know it, now tell us.

One has to wonder if this is much different than inquisition. Sure. It’s nowhere near as violent, obviously, and it is certainly not my intention to trivialize the horrors of the Inquisition. But in terms of power and knowledge—a community with the power of who you *really* are, with the power to control where you are (within the community), the injunction to reveal this to the community—there is something inquisitional about ‘accountability.’ By being in a community it is implied there is a part withdrawn, not entirely present to the community (the personal/sexual life), this is bad, and the community demands it of you (all in the name of ‘accountability,’ to take account for yourself).

This is particularly clear in men’s groups where discussion/confession of things like pornography and masturbation is ripe. The language used in such things, at least in my limited experience, fails to take the form of why these things are wrong (systemically), how to correct them (systemically), or any such thing. They take this language of accountability—confessing one has not given ‘everything’ to God (i.e. the community of believers), that they are ‘still holding on to things in their heart,’ etc. What these men tend to confess is their own finitude or withdrawal from the community rather than fruitful discussion over how to or even if we should overcome these issues. I have yet to ever here a sex-positive approach from a Christian as regards say pornography or even masturbation in such a context. The tacit assumption is these are things the church tells you not to do, but we all know you do them, so tell us you do already. Further, the ultimate confession is not that this person has objectified women, been unable to accept their own body, had sadistic fantasies even or what have you, but rather confessing how long it has gone on without telling anyone, how selfish this was of them, how bad it is to keep secrets, how they haven’t sacrificed everything to Jesus/the Church, in short, how they haven’t revealed all, haven’t been honest, broken, authentic.

I don’t mean this to be a bitter ‘all-confession-is-stupid-why-don’t-you-read-some-Foucault-or-queer-theory-already’ post. I mean this to be an urge towards a positive construction of penance—not one founded on guilt, of not revealing everything to the all-seeing-eye of the Church, but one grounded on lively conversation on how to overcome these real issues rather than use them as vehicles for pity and scapegoating. Men’s groups are so often scapegoats for not dealing with the issues they are supposedly attempting to correct. They so often devolve into self-pity, guilt, and lack of urgency to do anything constructive—meaning women are being exploited at the expense not only of these men’s sexual pleasure, but also for their self-pity and guilt as well. These are real people suffering who can’t afford the luxury of your feelings of guilt and pity. This is a call to have things like ‘accountability’ and Men’s groups to actually constructively deal with these issues—whether that be picketing, joining MCSR, teaching yes-means-yes at schools, boycotting products with sexist advertisements, or simply working for more female representation in the structure of their local church. It’s time for the contemporary American evangelical church to stop feeling sorry for itself and, who knows, start showing some sense of charity and justice.