Repentance

Forgive Us

I attended Catholic school for one year as a child. My second-grade year in Philadelphia’s St. Athanasius left me with a strong sense of the mystery of the church. The most mysterious space there was the confessional booth. I wasn’t allowed to enter because I wasn’t Catholic, so I just sat and watched others enter with pinched brows. Then they would exit with peace painted over their faces.

There is a scene in the book Blue Like Jazz where author Donald Miller sets up a confessional box in the center of the Reed College campus. But Miller’s confessional worked in reverse. Students of Reed, which is known as the most liberal campus in the country, entered the confessional booth with curiosity, cynicism, skepticism, or worse — to disprove this thing called Christianity. But what they encountered upon entry was disarming — even healing. Rather than prompts to confess their sin, Miller sat on the other side of the veil and confessed of the sins of the church. This was a revolutionary act in the context where, according to Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman’s modern classic, UnChristian, the general consensus about Christians is decidedly negative.

Let Us Demonstrate to the World How Repentance Works

'I confess that I am guilty of the sins of prejudice and racism.' Dream Perfection / Shutterstock.com

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” —2 Chronicles 7:14

Confession and repentance are messy and painful, and they don’t come natural to us. Our human heart is in a natural state of denial. Without an external agent, God, we are unable to recognize our prejudices, offenses, and sins.

In the previous text God speaks to God’s people, those whom God claims as God’s own. We belong to the Creator and to each other. That means that regardless of how we perceive others, and regardless of how others perceive us, bonds that can’t be broken tied us up. The relationship we share is held together by the very identity of God. Mother Teresa reminded us “we have forgotten that we belong to each other — that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.”

It is necessary that we understand that this belonging is mutual. I belong to you and you belong to me. There is no escape; we can’t change this relationship. It is only when I recognize others and welcome them into my life that the fullness of God’s identity in me is revealed. No one is an outsider. No one should be left out at the door of my heart; to do so is to deny my God-given identity.

 

Forgive Us, Lord

Jesus Cervantes / Shutterstock.com
'Forgive us for the ways we are broken and not yet made whole.' Jesus Cervantes / Shutterstock.com

Often we do not know how our words and actions affect and harm others. However, ignorance is not an excuse. As the body of Christ, we must be willing to look deeply at the implications of the choices we make. When those choices cause harm – intentionally or unintentionally – we must repent and ask for forgiveness.

Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith was a cry from my heart and the hearts of my coauthors as we wrestled with what it means to be the church of “Good News” in the 21st century. So many people do not see the evangelical church from that perspective. The church – rather than being Good News – is often a painful place where broken people, judgment, and criticisms prevail.

Engaging Ferguson's Youth with Humility and Repentance

Photo by Heather Wilson/PICO
Moral Monday march Oct. 13. in Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Heather Wilson/PICO

“Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity.” –1 Timothy 4:12 (The Message)

In our recent book Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, Mae Cannon, Lisa Sharon Harper, Soong-Chan Rah, and I call the American church to a posture of repentance due to all the times we have not only been on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of God.

As an organizer and director of the AMOS Project in Cincinnati, I’ve discovered that a humble spirit of repentance is critical to powerful work around racial and economic justice. There can be a strong temptation to replay colonialism by having all the answers and believing we are God’s gift to the oppressed. We white evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this arrogant path. Humility and a repentant spirit are key to a healthy engagement and partnership in our work.

Can We Be a Society of Second Chances?

Man praying, KieferPix / Shutterstock.com
Man praying, KieferPix / Shutterstock.com

For most folks, these names will not mean much: Eric Pizer, Christopher Barber, and Andrew Harris.

They are names that may have a bit resonance in Wisconsin, where I am from. What they represent, though, are the struggles we face as a society dealing with concepts of repentance and redemption. They represent the way those concepts get overrun by politicians seeking to exploit the public’s fears. We as a people, after all, do not seem to be in a very forgiving mood these days.

So the distinctive stories of these three Wisconsin residents might offer a good starting point for Christians thinking about what our faith tradition calls us to during this season of Lent.

All of Life is Repentance, But Especially Today

Photo by Andrew Stutesman / CreationSwap.com
Photo by Andrew Stutesman / CreationSwap.com

Seven years ago this week, I had my “come to Jesus” moment.

That’s not to say that over the past few years I haven’t had many experiences in which I’ve come away wondering “did I ever really believe up until now?” Many of those moments were far more profound and life-changing. It’s just that for me, it’s where a certain chapter of my life began.

I was raised in a Christian tradition that prized altar calls and bowing your heads, closing your eyes, and raising your hands to be saved. There was a clear delineator of when you were “born again” and when you were not. It was a moment in history, not just a spiritual exercise.

I don’t totally disagree. I think that there is something significant about the moment you first say yes, the same way I can remember the first time my best friend and I stopped just being colleagues. Our friendship has had many more important moments, but going to see Alice in Wonderland after work on a rainy Monday evening in March was where it started.

But as I have persisted (persevered for you Calvinists) in this faith I’ve discovered more and more what a relationship with God is like. In order for it to work, as Martin Luther famously said, all of life must be repentance. Every day the choice to say “yes” and not “no, I’m so done with this” is just as significant, if not more because coming to Jesus is often easier than staying.

What Repentance for the Church Looks Like Today

Repentance image, itsmejust / Shutterstock.com
Repentance image, itsmejust / Shutterstock.com

I’m asked pretty often what I see for the future of organized religion, and Christianity in the West in particular. Given the fact that I am in the process of completing a book called “ postChristian ,” some people make assumptions that I am convinced it’s all going away.

Granted, Christianity has experienced precipitous decline, and the drop-off likely is far from done. Before we see any leveling-off within the institutional church, there will be many more church closures, consolidation of shrinking denominations, and an increasing number of people called to, and already working in, ministry who supplement their income with some non-ministerial side vocation.

So what do we, who still operate within the system of a declining religion, do about our situation? Some of this has little or nothing to do with anything the church has done or can do. Our increasingly distributed, decentralized, and accelerated culture has forced churches out of the center of American social life. Also, changing cultural norms have made it much more socially acceptable not to go to church.

I’ve long suggested that many of the folks filling the pews during the so-called heyday of the Church some 40 to 60 years ago were there under some duress. They went because of community pressure to do so, because their spouses made them, or because it was a great place to do business networking. But honestly, were we any better off as a faith to have our buildings full if the folks who were there didn’t really want to be there?

One Church, One Body

From "12 Years a Slave"

IN OCTOBER, Sojourners hosted a Washington, D.C. premiere for the faith community of the extraordinary film 12 Years a Slave. The compelling story about Solomon Northup—a free man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery—is an accurate and well-produced drama, worth seeing for its cinematic merits, but primarily as a start to a conversation about race in America that is long overdue.

In her New York Times review titled “The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis wrote that 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States—but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” The film reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.

The enslavement of millions of people of African descent by white Americans was always violent, and too intense for most white people to really accept the truth. Most white people, white Christians, and white churches tolerated slavery for 246 years. This historically horrendous evil existed because we tolerated it. That’s why evil always continues to exist: because we tolerate it.

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'Fighting Words' from the Supreme Court

President Johnson hands Martin Luther King Jr. one of the pens used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

BACK IN THE day, when Stevie Wonder was Wishing “those days could come back once more,” my 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old friends and I had no idea what the heck he was talking about, but we loved the groove and would blast Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life album from our front steps as we played in front of my house in our West Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Sometimes the boys would coast down the street on handmade skateboards, literally made of old skates—the kind with wheels you strapped to your shoes—nailed to short wooden planks. Sometimes the girls and boys would race each other down a steep street, flying at lightning speed on bikes and boards, to see who could make it first to the candy shop at the bottom of the hill. And sometimes, in all the play, a verbal sparring match would break out:         

“You so big,” one friend would say, “it take two showerheads to clean yo big butt in the morning!” Then the 7-year-old sparring partner would come back: “Oh, yeah?! You so ugly, yo mama say ‘What dat?’ when she give birth to you!”

It would keep going and we’d all laugh out loud until someone got inappropriate. Usually inappropriateness began with three words: “Yo mama so ...” We all knew to never bring someone’s mother into the sparring match unless you wanted to fight for real. Those were fighting words.

This summer the Supreme Court got inappropriate. They spewed fighting words on the playground that is our national public square.

In the case of Shelby County, Alabama, vs. Holder, the court issued a 5-to-4 ruling that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Section 4 is the section that identifies the states which, because of historical racialized bias, must obtain “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes to their voting laws or districts.

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9mm Golden Calves

BACK IN 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued this warning: "The religious community must ... take seriously the risk of idolatry that could result from an unwarranted fascination with guns, which overlooks or ignores the social consequences of their misuse." Two decades later, about 660,000 more Americans have been killed by guns, with a million more injured.

These figures convince me that what was a risk in 1990 has become our reality today: For too many, guns have become idols. They claim divine status; make promises of safety and security they cannot keep; transform people and neighborhoods; create enemies; and require human sacrifice.

Not all gun owners have permitted their guns to become idols or absolutes. In fact, a recent poll shows most gun owners and NRA members, in contrast to public perception, believe personal freedom and public safety are complementary, not contradictory. But those few who hold the microphone at the NRA (the wealthy manufacturers and the gun zealots who do their bidding) have permitted their fascination for guns to supplant God and God's requirements for human community.

An idol's followers boldly claim divine status for it. Former NRA executive Warren Cassidy was clear when he boasted, "You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world." Not to be outdone, Charlton Heston, during a speech as NRA president, intoned, "Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel—something that gives the most common man [sic] the most uncommon of freedoms, when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty."

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