When confession works, and when it doesn't

August 11, 2017

The act of confession, as a Christian practice, should be guarded as a holy rite. Confession requires trust with secrets that confessing persons often have hidden from people they love. They even may have long hidden a secret from themselves. Confession—an act of speaking about one’s most vulnerable and troubling truths to another person designated as sacred—should involve the kind of trust no one else can reveal, exploit for gain, or use to manipulate the person confessing. 

I cannot make sweeping statements about how confession actually functions everywhere. But I have been privy to patterns within evangelicalism in the U.S., where people who have struggled at the intersection of piety and shame have been manipulated by others through confession. People who have, against many odds, finally recognized their homosexuality may be subtly prompted to gaslight themselves—to question their own hard-won, bodily wisdom. People who find the courage to blow a whistle on a destructive church scheme may be discouraged—that is, have their courage dismissed as pride or idealism. I have seen people eager to be blessed as clean after revealing their secrets to people designated as holy. I have seen some of these people controlled through their desire for someone with whom they can come clean.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s work explains how people become caught in a snarl of faith, secrets, shame, and money. In an essay for The Mayborn about Wright’s investigative process, journalist Joanna Cattanach noted that “Wright’s own religious youth in Dallas in the 1960s was formative. His family belonged to the First United Methodist Church Dallas, where he joined Young Life,” a para-church network that evangelizes and then continually connects youth from high-school through college to young adulthood and parenthood. On “Here’s The Thing,” a podcast hosted by actor Alec Baldwin, Wright details how it was in Young Life that he learned how “you can bend yourself into the shape of the organization in the way it wants you to be,” and “the more pious you are, the higher you climb.” His book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief documents, among other strategies, ways that a cult combines a hierarchical structure—whereby someone climbs by assimilating—and a tactic of procuring secrets. As Cattanach summarizes, “Wright’s books and essays today often explore religious belief as well as themes of shame, humiliation and conversion that are common among believers of all faiths . . . ‘I’m fascinated,’ Wright says, ‘by how you can take idealistic good people and have them believing things they never thought they’d believe and doing things they’d never thought they’d do.’”

The most well-known, written confession in the West is by a fourth-century bishop from north Africa. Maria Boulding translates a passage from Saint Augustine’s Confessions in this way: “I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self.” Augustine names a dynamic in some circles in the West: a desire for a remembered, re-integrated self. Whether this desire is basic, or part of a cultural pattern in Christianity, some people seek to confess and be absolved. And others at the center of Christian circles relish the chance to use confession to pry and use sacred language to control. This attempt may be made through therapy, a prayer group, in family or marriage counseling. 

Even having seen such manipulation, I myself continue in the hope that there is a God before whom people can come clean, unabashedly. Confession requires holy courage from someone confessing. Confession also requires holy courage not to manipulate vulnerable truths for the sake of some supposedly higher, or greater, cause. I appeal to my students (and anyone else who will listen) not to climb the ladder using the trust and piety of others.

Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University. She is the author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction, Writing Home with Love: Essays for Neighbors and Naysayers, and Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich (forthcoming with Duke University Press).