“We have waited nine hundred years for this, ten more minutes won’t make much difference.” These were the words of a rabbi from a synagogue in Bosnia Herzegovina. My friend John Presdee and his wife Yvonne, having been gripped by the power of apology, were leading a walk of reconciliation down the Crusader route on its 900 anniversary.
They had been called by the Lord to visit mosques, synagogues and orthodox churches to confess and apologise for the murder and destruction they had received by Western Christians during those times of appalling suffering. Of course they were not apologizing for Jesus, only for what Christians had done in his name. However, when they met the rabbi, John had forgotten to bring his written apology and so he asked the rabbi to excuse him while he went and fetched it from his hotel room. That was when the rabbi reminded John that his community had been waiting for so long for this to happen.
What this story reveals to us is just how old some wounds are, they don’t all fade away with time. Some go on being recycled in the memories of individuals and communities and continue to shape and effect the way peoples relate to each other. Consider how Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Serbia, justified his ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Kosovo as putting right the defeat inflicted upon Catholic Serbs by the Muslim armies as long ago as the fourteenth century.
George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a service in Limerick Cathedral, apologized for 800 years of English domination in Ireland. His words were received with applause because his congregation recognized that an old wound was being addressed. In September of this year the United Nations Congress on Racism in Durban passed a resolution inviting those European nations involved in the infamous slave trade to apologise for their nations actions and to pay compensation. In all these examples wounded group stories continue to poison and shape both individuals and communities. As Steve Turner wrote in his collection of poems ‘Up To Date,’ “History repeats itself, it has to, because nobody listens.” I believe God is calling his church to raise the profile of healing to the group level and to respond to his call to bring release and reconciliation to those caught up in wounded history.
At the heart of healing wounded history and its ongoing consequences is a unique form of corporate intercession which I have called representational confession. This is a form of prayer which is aimed specifically at group stories and is never used for the individual. There are five examples of this prayer in scripture. Daniel prays for the remnant nation in captivity in Babylon because he is convinced that their day of liberation is almost upon them (Daniel 9:1-19). Ezra pours out his heart to God because those who have returned to the land of promise are in danger of losing their national identity (Ezra 9:5-15).
Moses prays for the fledgling nation who are in dire peril of judgment because they had built the golden calf and were turning their backs on the God who had liberated them from Egypt (Exodus 34:8-9). Nehemiah prays for the healing of the ruined city of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:5-10). Jesus takes decisive action for the salvation of the human race by dying on the cross and rising from the dead, which the Apostle Paul describes as a representational act of identification: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2Corinthians 5:21). It is doubly interesting that this last text forms the climax of teaching on reconciliation and the church’s commission as Christ’s ambassadors to apply this healing to a broken world.
These five examples of representational confession contain some common themes:
1) Inclusive confession
Though personally innocent of the sins in question, each of these intercessors includes themselves as being also responsible. Daniel records, “I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed... we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.” (Daniel 9:4-5; cf.Ezra 9:6; Nehemiah 1:6-7). They pray from the perspective of the guilty! One of the reasons why they can do this is because this form of prayer is a confession and as such deals with more than their own private agenda.
All confession involves two fundamental acts of faith, ownership and offering. Daniel owned the story of captive Israel and all the history that led to the nation’s sorry state as his own. He also offered it in prayer because he realized that only God could save and heal his nation. Offering is the necessary step towards God to ask for his powerful intervention to bring deliverance or blessing to our group story. As we intercede for our wounded groups stories we must also make sure that our confession does not only include sins to be healed, but also celebrates what is good about our people, because we want such good gifts to go on being a resource for blessing.
After all, what we do not celebrate, shrinks through lack of affirmation. It is significant that Jesus, in the doomed city of Jerusalem goes out of his way to celebrate the giving of a widow because such acts demonstrate that God is still present among his people. Consequently, when we research group stories we look for two issues: that which goes on wounding and that which still has the power to bless. We are to own both items and offer them to God either for his healing and deliverance so that we can be set free from them, or for his blessing so that their capacity to enrich may grow.
What gives Daniel and others the right to represent their nation and its history? The simple answer is that they belong to that particular group story be it nation, church, family or community. It is important to realise that we cannot offer to God in confession what is not ours. I cannot offer the sins of the Japanese atrocities during World War II as mine because I am not Japanese, was not born in that country or lived there. I can certainly pray for that nation but I cannot act as its representational confessor. Our model and greatest example for this ministry is Jesus who is the man for others, the one who carries the wounded group stories of all to the cross. The significant difference is that Jesus is not only the confessor but the cure for all our sins.
3) Identification and per- sonal repentance
None of these intercessors indulges in self-righteousness. They had long discovered that at the heart of true intercession stands a weeper rather than a warrior. They avoid those intercessions which are disguised forms of accusation; blaming others for the problems of the present.
True representation involves an identification with as opposed to a standing apart from the group story. As such this ministry is a call to adopt a lifestyle of personal repentance as our own way of following through what God has revealed. We cannot repent for others so that they do not need to take personal responsibility but we can receive God’s forgiveness for our group story in the hope that it will release his grace for others to repent individually.
4) Locating wounded history
Daniel not only identified with a people, he also identified with a place, in this case the city of Jerusalem. His prayer reminds us of the story of kings and leaders whose sins took root in the bricks and mortar of the community. This underlines the fact that what people do also affects the places in which those actions took place. God challenged Cain by saying that he had been listening to the very spot of ground into which Abel’s blood had poured when he was murdered. (Genesis 4:10).
The sin of Adam and Eve robbed them of belonging in Eden and set the whole of nature under a curse. No wonder that one of the final healings in the Bible is the healing of heaven and earth itself. We need to listen to the stories connected with places and prayer walk them in order to seek God to bring his healing there as a contribution to helping us break the cycle of repeated wounded stories.
5) The power of Representational Confession
When Daniel prayed the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said, “As soon as you began to pray an answer was given”(Daniel 9:23). This is the only time in scripture that we are explicitly told that angels are despatched in response to prayer. The impact of his prayer was breathtaking. The cycle of generations of bondage were broken, the hold of hostile spiritual powers was shattered and the captive nation was set on the road to freedom. Following Ezra’s prayer a deep conviction of sin and the need for purity swept the nation; Nehemiah’s prayer resulted in the rebuilding of the city.
To conclude – I believe representational confession is a powerful resource for the healing and renewal of wounded group stories. It is a way of praying which God is calling us to rediscover in order that he might unleash his power to heal us and the group stories of our families, communities, churches and nations which we carry within us.