On Our Behalf: Reclaiming Repentance As a Progressive Christian

48/365: Ashes To Ashes

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This Lent, I will be exploring the evil done on our behalf for which the Episcopal liturgy calls us to repent. 

For Lent, I’m repenting.

And, as a progressive Christian, I’m also reclaiming repentance.

Given Lent’s themes of penitence, it’s actually a season well-suited for progressives. Unfortunately, it is also season often marred by the popular piety of giving up sodas and sweets and frequently misrepresented through a common misunderstanding of repentance.

For a number of American Christians, the notion of repentance often brings to mind fire-and-brimstone preachers at revivals, thundering about the hellish fate of the unsaved, and the subsequent teary-eyed altar calls that have the fearful — not the faithful — rushing to the front.

There is a long tradition of this in America, dating back to the Great Awakenings. While it might be historic in some respects, it doesn’t really have much to do with repentance.

Repent

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Often, though, we think of repentance in those terms, understanding it as simply saying, “I’m sorry,” to God and those around us. That is part of confession and forgiveness, of course, but one can be sorry without ever engaging in repentance. Perhaps that’s why in the Book of Common Prayer apology and repentance, though linked, aren’t seen as the same thing. Rather, we confess, “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

That’s because repentance isn’t a momentary instance of remorse and forgiveness, but rather a journey of transformation. It is about enlightenment, being transfigured through restoring and deepening our union with God and others. It is about seeing the world as it might be, where hate, injustice and violence are no longer. It is about seeing swords shaped into ploughshares. Repentance is about hope, not fear.

Indeed for all of its warping by many hell-obsessed Christians, repentance is something progressive and liberal Christians have been talking about for decades. We often speak the language of repentance, but call it by a different name. We call it being prophetic. Or speaking truth to power. Or bending the arc of justice. But what we are truly doing is calling for repentance, for transformation, for a generative movement forward into the Reign of God.

It would be a mistake, in my mind, to think of repentance as turning around on the path, backtracking and attempting to start over at the place where we perceive everything started to go wrong. It would be a mistake to think of repenting as returning to the way things used to be. Thinking of repentance in such conservative terms misses the point.

Because that’s not repentance. Rather, that is nostalgia. And it’s also a fiction.

Rather than calling us to go back to a simpler time, repentance beckons us further and deeper. It is progressive, rather than regressive. If we are lost, repentance isn’t about pulling out a compass and searching for the original trailhead. Instead, repentance is waiting to be found and then discovering that we have been found all along. For God is already with us in the middle of the path we’re on, no matter how thorny, steep or mired it is. Repentance helps us to see where God already is. It helps us get past that heresy of believing God would quit loving us.

Repentance restores the relationship, not by bridging the gap over sin but by removing our blinders so we may see God with us, in us, before us, calling us further into the desert, into the wilderness, into the work of bringing God’s Reign to earth as it is in heaven.

Repentance is the journey, the process of seeing that God has made holy the ground — whatever ground — we find ourselves on. Seeing God where we are changes us, too. It gives us that new mind, that new way of seeing and thinking and believing about the world that is the hallmark of true repentance. Suddenly there is hope for the future — not just my future, but for our future. Suddenly there is good news, and the revelation that we are that good news in the world. In repentance, we are called to action as God’s holy and creative agents in the world to stand against injustice, hatred, fear and the malevolence of prosperity-at-all-cost.

And it is not primarily an individual experience. Repentance is corporate and systemic, calling us not only to examine ourselves individually but to examine our society, how we live and what evils we may be participating in. Certainly we do wrong as individuals. Certainly we sin as individuals. Certainly we are to restore our personal relationships with those around us. But this is but a small portion of what God calls us to see with a new mind.

This systemic, community-oriented understanding of repentance is reflected in a supplementary confession for use in the Episcopal tradition, when we repent “of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” My guess is we spend a great deal of time thinking about the first two, and not much thinking about the last one.

The evil done on our behalf. As Christians in the most powerful and one of the most violent countries on the planet, this last one should pierce us.

There is so much evil done on our behalf. Capital punishment. A racist criminal justice and penal system. War, drones and torture. Systemic poverty, the absence of worker protections or living wage laws, the constriction of unions. Oppression of the poor, immigrants, people of color. Globalized capitalism and sweatshop labor. The abuse and exploitation of the environment for financial gain and our financial ease. Racial injustice. Environmental injustice. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, King once said, and his words ring true. For, in today’s world, injustice isn’t just anywhere. It’s everywhere.

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.

We are complicit.

We have left good undone.

As Americans, particularly if we are white, we confess this evil done on our behalf, but what comes next is the hard part: repentance. Changing. Walking this path we are on in the United States, but walking it transformed — seeing not the privileges of nationality with misplaced gratitude to God but the excesses, violence and gluttony of privilege with penitence before God and others.  Walking further into this wilderness of overconsumption that feeds on the souls of the poor and the beauty of creation. Walking in contrition, with God in us, with us, around us. Being called to something transformational.

How do we repent of this evil done on our behalf?

We must do it together. In fact, we can only do it together. Otherwise, it would overwhelm us. So I pray that this Lent, our churches will be communities of true repentance, true transformation and true hope.

May we observe, this season, a truly holy Lent.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Julie

    David, you have once again introduced me to an idea that had never entered my consciousness. Raised in Catholicism, but compelled to agnosticism for lack of a better, more genuine option, I find myself approaching my fifth decade and looking for greater spiritual connectedness. What you say makes me feel, causes an intellectual and physical reaction like a jolt. A spiritual electric shock that leaves my skin tingling and my mind whirling. Thank you so very much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Comments like this are the reason I write. So thank you, Julie.

  • Dave E

    A very timely piece of writing and not just for North America, but also for the entire globe, Repentance is part of the journey into humility which is surely the gateway to seeing and actually manifesting the power of the Kingdom right here, right now.
    Christians have forgotten that “apart from Him we can do nothing” and instead we have become the neo-Corinthians living like kings and princes in all our spiritual arrogance and domination.
    Repentance keeps us in the embrace of the Lord’s power.

  • Charis459

    There’s nothing like a spiritual crisis to teach one the true meaning of repentence… Charis

  • Arthur

    Surprisingly it had never occurred to me to repent of the evil done on my behalf. Thankyou so much for bringing this to my attention. The UK Government have a lot to repent of indeed.

  • http://twitter.com/mmgutz Melissa Gutierrez

    “It would be a mistake, in my mind, to think of repentance as turning around on the path, backtracking and attempting to start over at the place where we perceive everything started to go wrong. It would be a mistake to think of repenting as returning to the way things used to be. Thinking of repentance in such conservative terms misses the point. Because that’s not repentance. Rather, that is nostalgia. And it’s also a fiction.” –> I love this. I’m a fiction writer/liberal arts girl, and it’s so cool to have words to explain the gaps (and connections!) I feel and between this “secular” world of storytelling and learning and intellect and information and this “Christianity” I’m forever experiencing all at once. I often think about the benefit of where and how “fiction” can be a tool for progress, as well as a stumbling blog — so thanks for contributing to my thinking here and connecting these ideas to this big beautiful, transformative process of repentance. Great post.

  • jiminboulder

    Hi David,

    I can repeat that confession from memory. I knew it was true, but it didn’t mean a thing in terms of how I lived. What needed to change was me.

    “Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again.” (John 3:7)

    Love,
    Jim

  • JenellYB

    So much goes astray in having lost, or never understood to begin with, actual understanding what any of the words we commonly use really mean, what they represent really is. Repentance is certainly among those most mis-understood words, and ideas about meaning. Repentance can only arise from within, a self-awareness and recognition of something wrong, amiss, in ourselves, and what we do, how we act, how we think. Repentance is sometimes described as a ‘turning of the heart.’ it is to become aware, recognize, and genuinely grieve for, the hurt and harm we have done, been complicit in, or accepted being done with our knowledge and cooperation. It turns us toward not only recognizing our failure, our error, out wrong, but sincere grieving for those we’ve hurt, and desire to do as we can to heal that hurt, restore what we’ve damaged. Unfortunately, repentance has come to be used as if with a more common meaning, something that is pressed upon us from outside ourselves, by unpleasant consequences upon ourselves, and out attempt to restore ourselves with others, with our society, community, or those we’ve wounded that we want to stay in relationship with, and fear we might lose for reason of our ‘wrong.’ It is by that made simply an “oops, that didn’t go over so well, how can I fix it, how can I undo or negate the unpleasant consequence upon myself” kind of idea. In this common meaning, “I’m sorry” shifts the burden of responsibility onto those offended against, to require of them forgiveness, relieving the offender of consequences, and further, so often, expectation of being allowed to continue to offend, simply negating consequences again and again through “I’m sorry.” Who hadn’t experienced someone that having offended, upon some one or others having responded by determining to end a relationship or change the ways things will be, for no longer being willing to tolerate the offense, that screams out in great frustration when they realize things aren’t going to continue as they have been, “I SAID I’M SORRY! What ELSE do you want me to do? (to keep things as they were and continue getting what they wanted while still doing the same as before)”


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