Lisa Sharon Harper is currently the Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners. She previously served as the founding executive director of New York Faith & Justice. In that capacity she helped establish Faith Leaders for Environmental Justice, a city-wide collaborative effort of faith leaders committed to leveraging the power of their constituencies and their moral authority in partnership with communities bearing the weight of environmental injustice. She also organized faith leaders to speak out for immigration reform and organized the South Bronx Conversations for Change, a dialogue-to-change project between police and the community. Her writing has been featured in The National Civic Review, God’s Politics blog, The Huffington Post, Relevant Magazine, Patheos.com, Urban Faith, and Prism where she has written extensively on tax reform, comprehensive immigration reform, health care reform, poverty, racial and gender justice, and transformational civic engagement. Lisa is the author of Left Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican or Democrat and recently co-authored Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith with Mae Elise Cannon, Troy Jackson and Soong-Chan Rah.
KW: How did you choose the topics you addressed in the individual chapters of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith?
LSH: It’s important to understand the diverse nature of the team of authors, to understand how we chose the topics. We are a team of two women and two men; two historians and two theologians; two white evangelicals and two evangelicals of color. At our core, we are products of the evangelical church, specifically, and the American church, more broadly. While some of us might identify with the ones who sinned and others with those sinned against in one chapter, in the next chapter the one sinned against might find that he or she is the sinner. Sin knows no racial or gender bounds. So, first and foremost we all considered the chapters from the perspective of our collective broader identity—the church. And we asked ourselves: “As the church, how have we sinned against the world?” From there it was clear: racism, gender injustice, sin against indigenous peoples, sin against immigrants, sin against Jews and Muslims, sin against the LBGTQ community, and sin against the rest of God’s creation. These are the sins non-Christians hold against Christ and the church—and rightfully so. We have never repented—not collectively. So, these are the sins we would confront and confess in our book.
KW: Can you briefly illustrate your premise that Christians need to ask forgiveness with one of the topics covered in the book?
LSH: Sure. One of our foundational sins as Americans, is our sin against the first nations of this land. Our triumphal mythical American identity as “the city on a hill” and the recipient of God’s “manifest destiny” led our founders to justify all manner of sin against the first people of this land; from the Pequot Massacre, to the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the removal of the five southeastern nations, to the Western removals. Throughout our beginnings we claimed to be God’s chosen people, yet we trampled the Ten Commandments. Often in the name of Jesus, we broke treaties: “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Sin. We massacred men, women, and children: “Thou shall not commit murder.” Sin. We coveted the lands and resources of our indigenous neighbors: “Thou shalt not covet … anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Sin. We stole land through land grabs and stole native children; not giving them back until their parents converted to Christian faith. “Thou shalt not steal.” Sin.
But most of all, the thread we were struck by—the thread we discovered that wove its way through almost every chapter—is the sin against “the other.” A deep seeded belief that some people bear the image of God more than others—in other words, some people are simply more human (more worthy of protection, more worthy of honor, more worthy of life, more worthy of liberty, more worthy of happiness) than others.
KW: Why do you think the American church has largely missed the importance of lament, given it’s strong emphasis in the scriptures?
LSH: From Genesis to Revelation, the importance of lament is threaded throughout the scripture. Yet, the American church is shaped and its vision limited by its experience of the world. Ours is an experience shaped by triumph, not tragedy. American cultural legends, myths, symbols, and heroes, shape our understandings of ourselves in relationship to the world. The Lone Ranger, Manifest Destiny, the city on a hill, and John Wayne live at the heart of the American identity. This triumphal identity causes us to gravitate to triumphal narratives in scripture.
For example, while African Americans have a profound relationship with the story of the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt, that is not the identity defining narrative of the general public in the U.S. Our nation’s formative story is that of those same Hebrews entering their promised land. Our nation’s founders forged that mythical comparison in the early years of our nation’s history.
What use does a culture built on the myth of triumph have for lament? Our worship songs answer that question: not much. As a result, when confronted with the outcomes of the realities of our world: racism, gender injustice, nativism, the degradation of God’s creation, sin against immigrants and people of other religions, then we are dumbstruck. We don’t know how to respond.
KW: What role do confession and repentance play for those who may not think they are directly involved in these issues?
LSH: Nehemiah offers Christians a valuable picture of representational corporate confession. He did not grow up in Israel. He and his family had nothing to do with the sin that caused the nation’s walls to be breached and burned by fire when the Babylonian Empire conquered the nation. He wasn’t there. Yet, Nehemiah stands in the gap for his people. He identifies with their sin as if it were his own and as if it was the sin of his family.
He says: “Both I and my family have sinned. We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.” (Nehemiah 1:6b-7)
In scripture, confession always leads to repentance. Nehemiah is no different. Immediately following his confession, his feet get to stepping. He goes to the king and gets busy rebuilding the wall. God honors Nehemiah’s confession and repentance. The people of Jerusalem are brought back from exile. The city is restored and the wall is rebuilt.
KW: What makes us so quick to deny sin rather than address it?
LSH: A friend once said to me: “To ask for forgiveness is to die a small kind of death.” It’s true. It’s the death of pride, the death of ego, the death of the façade of perfection. And it’s funny. At the heart of our Christian faith is the belief that we are sinful beings. We are not perfect. That is why we need Jesus. That is why we need the cross. That is why we need the resurrection. Yet, we have rejected our need for Jesus when it comes to the most egregious sins in American church history. We have rejected the cross. And as a result, we have rejected the possibility of resurrection.
Ephesians 2:1-2a tells us: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins, in which you once lived, following the course of this world.” I think something got into our theology and caused us to over spiritualize our sinfulness. We think of it abstractly as our “sinful nature.” So, then we’re able to get “washed in the blood” of Jesus and think cool. I’m clean. Don’t need to worry about being held accountable for my sin anymore. Malarkey! The scripture itself is talking about active sin (not a nature) sins that really do hurt people—sins that really do break relationship—sins that really do destroy the world. We think just because we pray a prayer we’re okay. But acknowledging our sinful nature isn’t enough. We must acknowledge our actual sins and repent of them. We must cease from following the course of this world. We must stop living in the death of our sins. Instead we must die that small kind of death through the simple act of confession. Only then can we experience resurrection. Only then does God say in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
KW: Can you share one of your prayers of confession or lament?
LSH: The book is full of prayers of confession and lament. One of the most powerful prayers of lamentation I’ve ever personally experienced was taught to me in the midst of a journey I took to Srebrenica, Bosnia. It was 2004 and I was on a month-long journey with 20 Intervarsity college students from across the U.S. We were traveling through the Balkans to understand what it takes to make biblical peace and what it takes to break it. On this day, we loaded off of our chartered bus at the freshly dug Srebrenica Potocari Memorial cemetery. This was the site of a 1995 massacre during the Bosnian war. Orthodox Serbian forces, blessed by the state church, killed more than 6000 Muslim men and boys by bullet-fire all in one day. We walked dumbstruck among the dead. When we boarded the bus again we prayed a corporate version of a simple prayer prayed by Orthodox monks for centuries: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.”
KW: What advice do you have for people who want to be able to address these often divisive and misunderstood issues in a cultural conversation that is so fast-moving and driven by headlines?
LSH: I would recommend that folks come together with their church leaders teams, small groups or Bible studies working through the book chapter by chapter. Forgive Us is an excellent opportunity to move congregations from ignorance or apathy, through awareness and confession, to repentance and action.
KW: What impact do you hope to have on America and the American church with this book?
LSH: I think our greatest hope is that Forgive Us will help the church to encounter our forgiving, renewing, restoring, and redeeming God in a way that ultimately impacts the witness of the church and brings healing to our world.