Interceding for Sodom—The Sins of a Nation

This year, some will discuss/argue politics, and many
will be lost in their anger. Whatever the outcome, the
nation has reached a frightful point in its history. Many
will shout and many will curse. But some few will stand
before God and intercede for mercy. Will you join me and
repent for America? You don’t have to be American.
Abraham was not a citizen of Sodom or Gomorrah.

Can a nation ever sin? If
so, how can it be forgiven?

The stories and prophetic writings of the Old Testament
are replete with examples of national sin. There are
certainly stories of God dealing with individuals, but, on
the whole, His attention seems to be directed to Israel
and other nations as a whole. The promises and pledges are
made to a collective people and the chastisement falls on
the whole nation as well. Our modern sensibilities, rooted
in a fundamental commitment to individualism, recoil from
this collective treatment. And we are not the first to
complain.

In Genesis 18, Abraham argues with God about the cities of
Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has threatened to destroy the
cities on account of their sins. Abraham raises the
troubling question:

“Would You also destroy the righteous with the
wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the
city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it
for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from
You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with
the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked;
far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth
do right?” (Gen 18:23-25)

Thus, this question has had a prominent place in the
thoughts of the faithful since the very beginning. In
Abraham’s conversation with God, he asks if God
would spare those cities even if only fifty righteous
were found. God agrees. With continued pleading, Abraham
takes the the number down to 10 righteous (and stops). And
the Lord says that He would spare the cities for the sake
of just 10. Alas, less than ten were found. But we do not
upbraid God that He was willing to spare the unrighteous
for the sake of a mere handful.

There is a mystery contained within the entire exercise of
that conversation. For the truth is, none of us stands
alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our
lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring
of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much
that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is
tainted—both for good and for ill.

Fr.
Thomas Hopko
describes some of this as
“generational” sin. To understand this
requires that we remember that sin is not a legal
problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is
about a mystical burden that we experience as debt,
hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and
corruption, or just the starting place of our lives.
Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and
there are many “gifts” that we would prefer
never to have received. It is part of our incarnational
existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an
embodied existence in space and time is to have a body
burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture
that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own
existence is a consequence of everything that has come
before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a
contingent existence comes free.

Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of
political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national
group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and
obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead
innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our
burdens.

In the 20th century, there have been some notable national
crimes that have, in some way, been acknowledged. Japan
renounced its military in response to the atrocities and
errors of the Second World War. Germany paid reparations
to Israel and enacted numerous laws renouncing and
restricting the scourge of Nazism. Many war criminals were
punished. The Russian government, with no outside
political pressure, not only acknowledged many of the
crimes of its Communist past, but also built memorials and
rebuilt churches (often returning properties that had been
taken away) in an effort of public repentance.

It has rightly been noted that “history is written
by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we
more easily repent for the sins of history’s
vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But
the burden of sin as historical reality remains.
Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of
the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the
modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and
the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.

Often the legacy of history is carried on in competing
narratives. We do not always know or rightly remember the
details of what happened, but we know all too well the
emotional burden of its trauma. Hatred can be a very
ancient thing.

And it is to trauma that I want to direct our attention.
Trauma is a word for the damage we suffer in extreme
circumstances. It can occur as a result of natural
disaster, or war—any time and place in which we are
endangered, injured, or exposed to terrible actions.
People do not experience war and then walk away as though
nothing had happened. The war stops outwardly, but it
continues inwardly. This experience is as old as mankind
itself. Trauma sometimes leaves people emotionally and
even physically crippled.

Among ancient peoples, the trauma of life was met with
liturgy—rituals, both public and private that sought
to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath
of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The
collective psyche of a whole people was set right through
various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and
re-establish righteousness.

Modernity has very few such rituals. The secular state,
presiding over competing and disparate groups has almost
nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or
repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super
Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America,
but it serves nothing transcendent, nothing permanent. It
cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.

The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and
often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds
of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed,
erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the
national psyche.

Studying parish ministry in seminary, I was introduced to
the phrase, “recurrent latent cycling.” It was
meant to describe a struggle within the life of a parish
that erupts periodically, that is, in fact, the same
struggle. It might be around a new presenting
issue—but it was still the same struggle. Healing
the parish required a discernment of what was actually
going on—to bring something that was latent into the
light of day.

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.”

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