Excerpt from “The Sins of a Nation” (Fr. Stephen Freeman)

Abraham and the Three Angels. Chagall

An excerpt from “The Sins of a Nation”
By Father Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things

Nations (and individuals) who ignore their wounds and griefs do not leave them behind – they bring them forward and repeat their battles endlessly. Subsequent generations who never knew the first cause, become the unwitting bearers of the latent violence and destruction that they have inherited.

Though Orthodoxy does not generally use the term “original sin,” it doesn’t thereby deny the reality of the inherited burden of sin. The growing study of epigenetics would suggest that we may even inherit such burdens genetically.

The medicine we have received from Holy Tradition for this on-going sickness is repentance. Of course, it is very difficult for nations to repent, though there would easily be services for such in the Orthodox tradition. However, the shame associated with national or collective sin is often denied or retold in other ways. Without repentance, nations are doomed to relive, repeat or act out the bitterness of their trauma.

There is, of course, another way. It was first expressed in the prophetic words of the High Priest Caiaphas as he contemplated the Jesus problem:

“You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (Joh 11:49-50)

The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel. Of course, He was the public liturgy for the sin burden of the whole world. But there was a principle articulated in His sacrifice – that one man could die for the whole. This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia. “He became what we are that we might become what He is,” the Fathers said. It has also been the knowledge of the Church that we are invited into that selfsame sacrifice. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free. The Elder Sophrony describes such brave souls as Christ’s “friends.”

For at least as long as the days of Abraham, we have had intercessors who saved the cities and nations of the wicked. Their prayers were effective because they prayed in union with the one mediator and true advocate, Christ our God.

Abraham was God’s friend. As God visited with him, He said:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)

This is God’s inauguration of Abraham as an intercessor for the nations. The greatest friends of God have always taken up this same intercessory role. Through Christ and the prayers of our holy fathers, God preserves the world and saves the nations from the full brunt and weight of their history.

There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history. This latter role is the true life of the Church and the heart of her who prays, “On behalf of all, and for all.”

30 thoughts on “Excerpt from “The Sins of a Nation” (Fr. Stephen Freeman)

  1. Somehow I doubt Caiaphas had a prophetic sense as it seems he meant his words in one way while the Spirit of God meant them in another. It was as though he was prophetic in spite of himself. At least so it seems to me.

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  2. “I believe and confess, O Lord, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:15)

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  3. You’re right of course. Nothing is too big to pray for. It’s just my personal thing. Sometimes when I’m praying for things close to home it’s a visceral experience. I feel it in my bones and I feel like it has more power somehow but like you said, who knows!? And like you said below Robert, what’s the option?

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  4. Sin is personal and relational, and so is Confession; in the Sacrament we are to confess our own sins, not those of others.

    And yet, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “forgive us our trespasses.”

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  5. Here is something from the Book of Needs (prayers and short services for lots of circumstances) that my priest has been praying at the place in the Liturgy for inserting special prayers. Notice that the first thing is a confession of our collective sin/s, and we then are asking God to do what is impossible for us, individually or collectively to do, except for each person to desire that for him/herself. That is, we can’t force anyone to accept what God wants to do and help them do – though we ask on behalf of all, as did Daniel in his prayer (Daniel 9).

    “O Lord God, our Savior: With broken hearts we fall down before Thee and we confess our sins and iniquities wherewith we have provoked Thy deep compassion and have shut out Thy tender mercies. For we have departed from Thee, O Master, and we have not kept Thy commandments nor done that which Thou hast commanded us… Do Thou calm the agitation and discord in our land, banish from us slander and conflict, murder and drunkenness, bitter disputes and scandals, and burn out of our hearts every impurity, conflict and evil, that again we all may love one another and abide, as one, in Thee, O Lord, our God, as Thou hast commanded and directed us. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we have been filled with humiliation and none of us is worthy to lift up our eyes to Heaven. Remember the mercies which Thou hast shown unto our fathers, change Thy wrath into loving-kindness, and grant unto us help in afflictions. Thy Church prays Thee, through the mediation of Thy Friends who are standing before Thee — our Holy Hierarchs Tikhon, Innocent, Nicholai and John, the Martyrs Juvenaly and Peter, John and Alexander, our Venerable Father Herman, the Righteous Alexis and Jacob, Moses the Ethiopian and, most important, of the Most-holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. May they help and protect us. Raise up for us leaders of strength and understanding and virtue and grant unto all of us a spirit of wisdom and the fear of God, a spirit of strength and piety… O Lord, we make haste unto Thee; do Thou teach us to do Thy will, for Thou art our God; for with Thee is the Fountain of Life and in Thy light shall we see light. Let Thy mercy be upon them that know Thee unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

    D.

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  6. Because Orthodoxy doesn’t view what happened on the Cross as a legal event. There is no “penal” interpretation whatsoever of it, or the texts of the NT that speak of it. There is a very nuanced understanding of “substitution” but it’s far down the road from the Protestant understanding.

    If you wish to investigate this, go to Fr Stephen’s blog and search for “ontology” or “atonement” or “sacrifice” or “participation” or “salvation”. There’s plenty there.

    Dana

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  7. Nothing like that in the Liturgy. There is a form of general absolution for a parish or other assembly, but that’s not done much unless there’s an extreme need of some sort. Sin is personal and relational, and so is Confession; in the Sacrament we are to confess our own sins, not those of others. However, that reality exists alongside the reality of the collective burden of humanity, of which Fr Stephen writes, because we are all truly part of one another and deeply connected, whether we feel that connection or not.

    There probably is some Orthodox prayer service that could be used for a national repentance type of ritual; in fact, I’d bet money on it. The question arises if those who are not Christians, or who don’t recognize Orthodoxy as Christian, would pray along. There would be things they could do, though, to show that they have truly turned, like Fr Stephen talks about in the OP (e.g. Germany, Russia). Of course, Christians are not supposed to simply pray, but also listen and then act as appropriate in their contexts.

    Dana

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  8. I think Lewis was making the point you noticed, and he expressed at the end of this quote:

    “A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet. whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’ ”

    There’s a logic in that, but it’s a different thing than what Fr Stephen is saying. Again, go read the full post at Fr Stephen’s.

    D.

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  9. Robert,

    Go read the whole thing. You’re/we’re accounted for in y/our both-ness.

    Dana

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  10. Someone once asked the world renowned Japanese scholar of Zen Buddhism D.T. Suzuki — himself a Buddhist, naturally — if he prayed. He gave a long answer in effect saying that, you know, no one’s there to hear and grant your prayers, and you have to do the work of enlightenment yourself, no one can do that work for you — and he concluded by saying, “Of course I pray.”

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  11. –> “Sometimes I feel as though praying for ‘the world’ or ‘world peace’ is too broad. It seems as though I need to cover a more specific niche that I relate to. If each of us covers the specifics that are laid on our hearts, with passion, then the whole is passionately prayed for. I do believe there is some truth to that. Still, some people are moved to pray for the whole planet and so they ought.”

    I’ve prayed many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, for God to help “fix” the global pandemic (my term “fix” covers many different aspects which I’ll leave to your own definition/imagination). My prayer is always, “I’m not sure how my lone voice (or the voice of four of us) impacts such a big, global problem, but I feel the need to pray to You about it anyway, my Lord.”

    I don’t think “not praying for something” because it seems too big is the right answer, even as I’m not sure I’ll ever understand how it might move God toward action in fixing such a big thing.

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  12. the whips and chains bound not only the ‘slaves’, but those who used the whips and chains, so that the wounds go deeper into the nation than we realize

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  13. Sometimes I feel as though praying for ‘the world’ or ‘world peace’ is too broad. It seems as though I need to cover a more specific niche that I relate to. If each of us covers the specifics that are laid on our hearts, with passion, then the whole is passionately prayed for. I do believe there is some truth to that. Still, some people are moved to pray for the whole planet and so they ought. It’s not that I don’t ever and ‘my niche’ is not isolated to my geography. It is defined by what I am made cognizant of and doesn’t let go of me. For some reason, every time I pray of late, I always have Yemen come to mind so I regularly pray for Yemen. Then there are a number of individuals. I also regularly pray for South and Central America and the scourge of the drug cartels. Call it a division of labor. I feel more connected to these that regularly arise in my mind than to the broad category of the world. I think various monastic traditions consider prayers for the whole their calling. Different parts of the body carrying out different functions I suppose.

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  14. My own basic position is that as citizen of a republic constituted by certain democratic practices, I bear responsibility for what the government does in my name. Government by the people, for the people. So I am part of the we that governs, even if I’m politically passive. Yet I think Lewis has a point in certain respects. I see a lot of finger-pointing and attributing to others the sins of the nation whenever the idea of national repentance is broached. But how could that not be in a country whose history and present has bifurcated people groups, so that the nation has never been one, but two, or many? It would absurd to expect black Americans to repent of the national sin of American slavery and racism, when they have been its victims. That’s not a liturgy they are responsible for undertaking, and not something for them to repent. So the entire nation is not responsible to undertake this repentance for racism, but part of it is.

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  15. It’s worth noting that even if Caiaphas had some prophetic sense of how the death of Jesus would heal and unite God’s people, all the rest of the religious establishment cared about was that by putting one man to death unjustly they could avoid facing his prophetic witness anymore and could maintain a surface-level peace: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (Jn 11:48)

    There are always prophetic individuals in the church calling Christians, and society as a whole, to face the sins of their culture and of their nation and to repent. But as in Jesus’ day, the religious establishment often serves as a way for society to cover up and defend those sins, or as a source of “cheap grace” giving surface-level absolution so that people don’t have to face their deepest and darkest broken places.

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  16. “This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia.”

    Why not both?

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  17. But are we either one or the other of those kinds of people, or are we mixed bags, sometimes being the weight, and sometimes bearing it? In my case, I’m a mixed bag. I tend to think the only one who was/is purely bearer was/is Jesus Christ. Maybe it’s that at any given moment we can choose to be or bear the weight, but I’m not even sure it’s always completely either/or in that case either.

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  18. To Eastern Orthodox iMonks I have a question: Does the regular Sunday liturgy of the Orthodox churches have a General Confession, wherein the whole congregation confesses its sins aloud together?

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  19. –> “There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history.”

    Great line. Very profound.

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