Litany of Penitence

Submitted by admin on Thu, 02/23/2012 - 08:28

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday, church-goers recited the “Litany of Penitence.”  One petition struck me in particular, “Accept our repentance, Lord, …. For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.”  (Italics mine)

Wouldn’t this be an example of prejudice and contempt?  We hear it read aloud on the third Sunday in Lent every third year:

[The Jews, as they journeyed in the wilderness,] drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.  And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends the ages have come. (I Corinthians 10:1-13)


The National Council of Churches adopted a Policy Statement on Interfaith Relations in 1999 after consultation with member churches, including the Episcopal Church.  It concludes with twelve Recommendations, which it actually names as commitments.  Number ten says we commit the Council to “ Condemn all forms of religious, ethnic and racial bias, especially anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian and anti-Native American bias, and other forms of sinful bigotry which turn religious differences into excuses for defamation, stereotyping and violence; and defend their victims…; and commit the Council and our churches to uproot all that might contribute to such prejudice in our teaching, life and ministries.”  The Episcopal Church, in its “Guidelines for Christian-Jewish Relations” says specifically, “The Church must learn to proclaim the Gospel without generating contempt for Judaism or the Jewish people.”

Readings such as this put us church goers in a quandary.  On the one hand, we may not be familiar with the specifics of the Policy Statement or the Guidelines; we may not even remember the petition in the Litany of Penitence, but we do sense something is wrong.  The ninth commandment says it: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16)  On the other hand, these passages come from Holy Writ, and after we hear them read we solemnly intone, “The Word of the Lord.”  Pretty clearly we are being asked to believe that the Jews are an inferior people, spiritually speaking.  It comes down to this.  Shall we doubt our sense of truth and justice – our conscience –  or shall we doubt our faith?  This is not a choice we church goers should have to make, and when some drift away from the church they may be opting to avoid such a choice.

Let us make it, not just a lenten resolution but a forever-after resolution, never to allow prejudicial passages from the New Testament to be read aloud in church.