Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Church Lives by Public Humiliation

Following Kevin's lead of mentioning a popular American sitcom in the same breath as a patristic theologian...(will this be the new meme that explodes around the blogosphere? No, no it won't.)

Tertullian's On Repentance speaks of an early Christian practice known by the Greek word exomologesis. Foucault thinks of it as a technology of the self, but it was more like a technology of the community. For the  guilty member of the church it involved public confession of sins, weeping, fasting, and beseeching forgiveness from Christ/His body the Church (Tertullian, at times, doesn't make much of a distinction between the two). It functioned to make it publicly known that God is holy, that the church is holy, and that this particular person acted against that holiness. This is not a name-them-and-shame-them practice, with the rest of the church community standing in aloof judgement of the sinner. On the contrary, the community suffers with the penitent person, in the hopes of eventually welcoming him or her back into full and joyful communion.

This may strike us as the kind of legalistic, medieval Christianity that the Reformation did away with, but in an episode of Modern Family last night ("Coal Digger") there was what one might consider a contemporary example of exomologesis that should encourage churches to bring back penance!

Without explaining the nitty-gritty of the show, Claire called her father's new wife Gloria a gold digger behind her back. This transgression eventually came to light through her son. Gloria was upset, and retreated to her room for what turned out to be a very funny scene with Claire's husband Phil. Claire came up the stairs to patch things up with Gloria by admitting to her guilt and asking Gloria to forgive her. Gloria said no. Well, what she said was that she would forgive Claire is Claire humiliated herself by jumping into the pool with all her clothes on. Claire agreed.

She walked to the edge of the pool, showing her willingness to jump in for the sake of forgiveness. She thought this willingness would be enough. It wasn't. Gloria insisted that she jump into the pool. Only then would she know that Claire was truly sorry. So Claire jumped.

That, in a secularised nutshell, is exomologesis.

What happened next? Everyone else dived/got pushed into the pool, sharing in Claire's humiliation.

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