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What Augustine, Stephen Colbert, and Joe Biden Can Teach Us About Political Confession

Image by Kevin Burkett via Flickr. Image by Kevin Burkett via Flickr.

Lately I have been reflecting on the idea of "confession" and how it would offer people, communities, and societies a chance for growth, though not without acknowledging their shortcomings or difficulties.

Here's what I mean. I am reading for the third time Augustine’s Confessions, which is the autobiographical account of the saint’s early dissipation, turn to Manichaeism, and eventual conversion to Christianity. I have also been reading and watching Stephen Colbert, whose interview with GQ and sit down with Vice President Biden (parts one and two are here and here) penetrate into the depths of a man long known only for his façade. Although these written works and television interview are disparate in content, they cut to the heart of our need for confession, for the self-awareness and decision to improve ourselves beyond the personal sphere.

In his Confessions, Augustine writes clearly about the difficulties of giving up sin. He refuses to hide anything from the reader; he bares himself fully in order to testify to the saving grace of the Christian god. He recognizes, however, that he cannot get to the joyful news of his conversion, nor its transformative power, without detailing the major transgressions he has committed. Colbert and Biden are less interested in confessing their sins and more interested in confessing difficulties and sufferings. In his GQ interview, the comedian relates the pain associated with the death of his father and two brothers during his childhood as well as how his mother passed on the faith and strength to endure, ultimately leading to a significantly more joyous (and more comical) existence. Similarly, Vice President Biden spoke frankly about the death of his son, swearing that Beau was a better man in every way. Despite their differences, they both share a humility derived from suffering and joy in a new, and quite different, life.

This idea of dialoguing with one’s past is also useful at the political level. Last year there was a debate in Texas, in which some people pushed for a more critical view of U.S. history while others sought a more charitable one. When the Republican side won, Democrats were furious, decrying the move as purely ideological. For their part, Republicans saw the changes as a necessary counterweight to perceived ideological prejudices already present in classrooms. Wouldn’t a more confessional approach be more fruitful? An approach that recognizes the horrors committed by colonists and conquistadors without disowning them could speak to both sides, admitting that our past is not simple or easily ethically evaluated, but that we, as citizens of this country, also owe many of our comforts to that past, that a man can be both cruel and courageous. Even as Augustine condemned his sins, he also accepted them as a part of his journey. Or, as Colbert rather dramatically puts it, “I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

It's clear that most political issues are not simple. But the willingness to recognize our mistakes and past sufferings is the road to a more joyous present. It's the path from rejection to acceptance, from shame to richer understanding.


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