The problems in public confessions of private wrongs

Confessions are tricky things.

I pondered this after reading a published confession of a celebrity who admitted to a particular crime. Never mind what it was, or who or when. That’s not important for my purposes here.

What I thought about was the various public confessions I’ve read or heard. There have been quite a few. Some are vague, others excessively detailed to the point where I felt myself a voyeur, sickened and implicated in the wrongdoing by witnessing it afterward through the words.

These public confessions tend to be open to interpretation. Do they agree with the facts? Is there an apology attached, indication of true repentance, desire to change, or make amends to the wronged persons? Or are they self-justifying? Is the wrongdoer’s clarification actually a justification for the actions?

 The clarification usually lessens the wrong. (“I know what you think I did, but it’s not as bad as what you’re imagining!”) It rarely, if ever, increases the scope of the wrong. (“I know what you think I did, but it’s worse than that. Much, much worse.”)

What about the motivation? When a public figure willingly writes or states his/her wrongdoing, why are they doing it? It goes against our natural tendency to hide our sins; I certainly don’t like telling everyone (or even one other person) I did something wrong. It would be like dancing on a float in the Macy’s thanksgiving day parade naked and filthy.

So when a celebrity or other public figure feels the need to do the moral equivalent of this, what pushes them into this acknowledgment of guilt?

  • Repentance?
  • Remorse?
  • A need to explain why they are removing themselves from the spotlight?
  • A need to bring the attention to self, shifting the spotlight from the victim to the perpetrator?
  • Some combination of the above, perhaps.

It’s too easy, also, to congratulate ourselves on our confession:

“See how humble I am? I just confessed my pride!”

“Yes, but have you truly forsaken your pride?”

The other factor is the audience’s response. Several people might hear the confession (or even a direct apology) and interpret it differently. I’m reminded of Dimmesdale’s confession in The Scarlet Letter. The dying minister tells the townspeople that when they look on Hester (his secret lover) and see her scarlet letter A for adultery, they need to see the scarlet letter branded on his chest, put there by God himself as judgment for his sin. (The specific sin is referenced in vague terms.)

“Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold the dreadful witness of it!” (chapter 23)

And with that, he tears away the robe covering his chest, and the townspeople see what is there.

Then comes the interesting part. Most of the spectators see a scarlet letter on his flesh, but there are several explanations for why it is there.

  • Dimmesdale put it there after Hester began wearing hers, desiring to do penance and torture himself.
  • Hester’s estranged husband, “a potent necromancer,” caused it to appear.
  • It is a symbol of Dimmesdale’s remorse at his sin of adultery, caused by God’s judgment.

Most interesting, though, are the spectators who deny that there was any mark or implication of guilt in his words. For these people, Dimmesdale’s words are his expression of “how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man’s own righteousness” and how “in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike.” In other words, by identifying himself, the supposedly righteous minister, with Hester, the infamous wicked adulteress, he shows the futility of good works in attaining salvation. It’s a parable of sorts.

An odd parable!

Hawthorne notes that those who hold the last view are “highly respectable” people. They cannot bring themselves to find fault in their revered minister, perhaps because that causes them to question themselves. Could they, too, be guilty of such a grievous sin? And what of the other righteous people around them?

What I take away from these various views of Dimmesdale’s confession is this: people interpret the same words from different perspectives and find different meanings. What the meaning is—and how accurate it is—depends on them. Their perspective. Their background. Their emotions. Not the confessor’s.

I read that public confession of the celebrity from a particular perspective and background. I found remorse, some self-justification, and a legitimate desire to clarify when and how the crimes happened, for the sake of those who knew him during this time.

If I had a different background (say, having been a victim of a similar crime), I would read the confession more harshly. Skeptically, too. Yeah, right, and a zebra might change its stripes but I’m not holding my breath. A law enforcement officer and a sex offender would read it in drastically different ways.

If we’re the confessor, we can’t control our audience’s interpretation. What I can control is my own actions.

First, I seek to repent before God. See that the wrong was wrong. Period. No excuses.

Then confess to the appropriate people. Be plain spoken. (Dimmesdale fails miserably at this point!)

Don’t seek to justify or clarify your actions. Speak the truth and nothing but the truth.

Acknowledge the hurt I caused. Ask for forgiveness. Deal with the consequences.

There are always consequences when we do wrong. But there is always hope, too. As Dimmesdale dies in Hester’s arms, his words are ruminations on the law broken, his afflictions, and whether he and Hester will meet in the thereafter. In the middle of these lies hope:

“God knows, and He is merciful!”

Amen.


(As a side note, if you’re interested in a modern SF/dystopian twist on The Scarlet Letter, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke is fascinating and provocative.)

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “The problems in public confessions of private wrongs

  1. I was thinking about the nature of confession myself, only this morning, but I was thinking of it in terms of the way we used to ‘confess’ at Celebrate Recovery. Our CR group was mixed, meaning we were there for a myriad reasons (unlike the original format which has people in particular groups for particular issues) and I found the confessional element, where each person spoke about their week and what they’d been experiencing/feeling/doing was extraordinary in its healing. I think the fact that we were all there for different reasons actually worked very well because it gave me (and others) the realisation that every one of us is broken, just in different ways. It didn’t matter whether we were confessing a ‘sin’, or confessing our brokenness, or disclosing painful experiences caused by the actions of others. It just didn’t matter. These confessional times held several things in common from week to week:
    1) They were absolutely confidential. There were things said that never left the room. This confidentiality was sacrosanct and, if broken, caused the individual to be asked to leave (this only happened once, to my knowledge).
    2) They were limited in time. You had your five minutes max and so you said what you needed to say. Sometimes it maybe didn’t feel long enough, but it meant that we all had an equal say.
    3) There were strict rules, not only about confidentiality, but around when a person was speaking. During a person’s turn, no one else was allowed to comment, good or otherwise. They were not allowed to touch the person, nor even pass them a box of tissues. My speaking time was my time. It was part confession, part catharsis.
    4) They weren’t just confession times, each week followed a particular theme based on a Christ-centred recovery programme.
    But no, I don’t hold much faith in public ‘confessions’, in general. I suppose that is the difference between a confession and a testimony. A testimony can be part confession, but it is also about how we have changed, or how we are changing, with God’s help.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never been in a recovery group, so I don’t know much about how they are run. This is fascinating. I like the “rules”; they really allow freedom to speak and confess honestly, but also place healthy boundaries in these very intimate spaces. No one has the “power” (such as might happen between a clergyperson and a layperson/confessing person) and no one is lower than any other person. Love that! Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  2. To me, confessions are like seeking forgiveness: it should be expressed to the people involved/wronged. A pastor might have need to confess from the pulpit, but not for everything. Doing it publicly when not necessary seems either a matter of simple poor judgment or poor judgment coupled with an attempt at self-aggrandizement.

    Then again, I confess much less often than I should, privately or publicly.

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    1. Good point. I’ve heard a bunch of “confessions” from the pulpit, so that’s influenced my thinking on this and left me with a skeptical attitude toward pastors and their confessions or apologies (that usually aren’t apologetic). And even though I know I ought to confess more often, I don’t; I’m usually too busy doing the same thing I accuse these public figures of doing: justifying myself.

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  3. Although I do believe in the good of confession, most public confession seems to be out of place– either self-aggrandizing or else meant to humiliate and dis-empower the confessor. I suspect there is a place for public confession, but most confession appears to me to be best done privately, and only to the people directly harmed by the perpetrator’s sin.
    Dimmesdale’s confession, by the way, looks(!) to be a comment on an characteristically American obsession with authenticity and the confessional sense of truth, bestowed to the puritanical (?) heirs of these democratic Congregationalist believers. Of course, America was and is far more diverse than the just the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, but American culture does appear to be strongly colored by those Puritan sentiments (and the responses to those sentiments).
    Hawthorne neither quite completely condemned Dimmesdale, Hestor or the other guy (the man in black), nor does he quite completely exonerate and exalt any of these three characters. Instead, that tale of red fire set in a background of sable gives a thoughtful, questioning, and discerning gaze upon the need for confession and authenticity and the need for tempering that desire for truth blazing forth with private confession, repentance, and good works of love and service to others. Partly as a result of my study of this gothic romance of Hawthorne’s (and partly from my own experiences), I have taken to turning a skeptical eye toward any public or institutional declaration of transparency. I should note also, that total transparency means in actuality “invisibility.” No, I think confidentiality and transparency work together to make truth, and that such is the best recipe for truth spoken with and in love.

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    1. Enjoyed your thoughts, Paul. I, too, am skeptical when companies, etc., claim total transparency; why are they so determined to make others think they’re not hiding anything? That only makes me suspicious that they are hiding some insidious thing behind that “transparency.” They doth protest too much, methinks.

      On a slightly different note, The Scarlet Letter was the first novel I read that made me realize how much I love literature. I truly enjoyed it, despite the silly discussions in high school English class. I had to read it again my senior year of college, and it came alive and showed its richness and depth. I’m probably one of the few Melville lovers who also loves Hawthorne. Most seem to dislike poor ole Hawthorne for being too moralistic or something, and even though Melville adored H’s writing, they can’t see the attraction. Ah well, their loss!

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  4. I used to be a dedicated reader of “People” magazine, but I stopped reading it for the most part, and I’m way better off for it. To learn about sordid, disturbing confessions makes me so sick, and some of the articles gave me nightmares…. and reading these confessions doesn’t help me to be a better person! Thank God I can direct my attention to reading soul-satisfying blogs instead of soul-shrinking articles, such as your blog, Laura!

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    1. I usually don’t read “People” magazine, but I was in the doctor’s waiting room and picked it up. (I think there was a cover story about a Duggar wedding, and “all” the details inside. I’m a sucker for wedding photos, even if I don’t know or care about the couple. I just like to read how they individualize their wedding and make it special for them. 🙂 ) You’re not missing much by not reading it. Occasionally, I’ll find something of interest–if someone with a mental illness or special need is profiled–but it’s usually gossip about people I’ve never heard of. I suppose it gives me a barometer of what pop culture is currently obsessed with; since we don’t have a television, I usually feel a little “out of it”. I try to read about current movies/television/music just to know a little bit about how my contemporaries are thinking. (I tend to walk away thinking that they aren’t thinking at all!) 🙂

      Anyway, I’m glad that you’ve realized what’s best for you and your mind and heart. I’m glad that you’ve included me in your “soul-satisfying” category!

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