By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.
I remember the first time I heard the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in which the speaker and congregation together prayed, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I remember it distinctly because they were not familiar words to my ear. Taught this prayer as a young girl, even before I could read, I learned to pray: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This version of the Lord’s Prayer – unwieldy though it may be – feels more natural in my mouth.
I am delighted to listen and share either version of the Lord’s Prayer and I’m frankly happy that anyone still prays, at all. But as a lover of words, I am someone who wants to wrestle with language and to seek truth even in narrow spaces. So it is this notion of “trespass,” that speaks most intimately to me, navigating life as a Black Christian woman.
To ask for forgiveness for our trespasses is to acknowledge the ways that we have willfully and deliberately sinned; it is to admit that we have ignored the spiritual “No Trespassing” signs – and that our thoughts, words, or deeds have caused someone injury. Our forgiveness is dependent first and foremost on the acknowledgement of our wrongs, those deliberate and those unintentional. Yes, we are certainly sinners in need of grace.
But to “forgive those who trespass against us” also requires the naming of sin and the acknowledgment that one has been sinned against. When someone has trespassed against you, they have crossed a line or a boundary, violating your space and your very being. When we are courageous enough to forgive those who trespass against us, it is only by first naming the infringement and the violation. We need to publicly and collectively name the forces, principalities, structures, and persons who have harmed us, continue to harm us, and seek to harm and silence us in the future. Because yes, we have most certainly been systematically sinned against.
There can be neither true repentance nor true restoration without naming the actual nature of the trespass. When someone uses language that is demeaning and degrading, calling you everything but a child of God, the sin is not merely the language they use; the trespass is the assault on human dignity. When someone commits an act of physical abuse or violence, the sin is not just a physical event; the trespass is the disrespect of a creation made in the image and likeness of God. When someone despises the flesh and the body God gave you, the sin is not simply one of hatred; the trespass is making a liar of the God who proclaimed you fearfully and wonderfully made.
To trespass on someone’s land or property is to insist: “I have a right to cross into your territory, at will and on my own terms.” When you trespass on the spiritual realm, it is by insisting on your own superiority and the other person’s inferiority and submission. We trespass when we determine the terms of the discourse, the participants in the discussion, and we exclude those we deem do not belong at the table. We trespass every time we announce yet another conference on the future of the church, but fail to invite two-thirds of that very church as full participants and leaders in that conference. We trespass when we claim we want to have a conversation about “young people” and the church, but we refuse to listen to what they actually have to say, while we busily critique what they are wearing. We trespass when we talk about mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, but we do not deal with the stigma of shame that religion attaches to those who are imprisoned.
The wages of sin is a vicious cycle: broken people who have been so trespassed against and stigmatized, often lash out against those closest to them, and fail to critique the very powers of racism, sexism, and elitism that actually have them bound. My Lenten meditation is to name the ways I have fallen short and need God’s grace; not fear naming the forces of evil that have sinned against me; and acknowledging that both forgiveness and restoration requires truth – even painful truths – in the innermost parts.
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also an Associate Professor of Religion & Literature. She blogs at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar and you can find her on Twitter @YNPierce.