Jesus Radicals Blog 2005-2017
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For many Christians, it is a season of repentance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about repentance lately, since I’m writing a book on repentance. I’ve become increasingly aware of the inability of our culture to embrace repentance. By “our culture” I mean white western culture–particularly as expressed in the United States.
We are enmeshed within a cultural ethos that looks forward. We assume that progress will resolve the problems of the past without requiring us to embrace lives of repentance. We learn history, but when we notice injustices in the past, we are urged to move on–to consume the information–but must not dwell there. To dwell in the past is seen as anti-social. However, repentance means coming to terms with the past–to not only own our complicity and relationship with past (and ongoing) wrongs, as well as return to those stories that should shape us as followers of Jesus Christ.
Repentance is, unfortunately, often understood as an event rather than a posture. When I say “repent” I mean to turn from one direction to start walking in another. I mean that we need to start walking towards health and away from dis-health. We need to look honestly at the history of the American Empire and Western Civilization and confess how much those histories have shaped us. The myths of Empire have formed us so deeply that it takes a life time of repentance to learn a new way.
Most of us are unwilling to swallow that bitter pill. After all, such a posture leads to increased feelings of shame. And shame, we know, is bad, right?
Shame, as Marx defined it, is “anger turned inward.” It can even become self-hatred. And, usually, that self-anger comes from a mixture of lies and truth. We have all internalized lies about ourselves that cause us to hate ourselves. But shame can also stem from being confronted with a hard truth.
For example, many men I know feel a particular sense of shame around sex. I’m the same way. Deep inside part of me believes that sex is dirty. It is wrong. I believe this because so much in our society reinforces this–from the way that sex is depicted as transgressive or “naughty” in the media to the way that men are shown in television and films to be pigs who “only think about one thing.” Furthermore, much of the message I’ve heard from church about sex (when they’d actually talk about it) increased its shamefulness. 1 Because of this, I have to struggle with a tendency to view sexual longings and urges as sick or wrong.
When one holds such secret shame–one based upon lies–it is hard to hear the truth. When I first encountered radical ideas about sexuality and gender, I was incredibly anxious. It aggravated my shame. The truth about the complexities of sexuality, and the goodness of sexual desire is hard for me to really embrace. It is also hard for me to hear the truth about the high percentage of men who can be sexually abusive or unfaithful. Speaking truth to the lies doesn’t necessarily lead to liberation. At first, it just heightened my experience of shame.
Now to a national example. We all know, at least superficially, of the dark history of the United States. Most of us, at some level, feel shame about that. Indeed, I have some internalized anger over the privileges I get in this society simply by virtue of being a heterosexual white man.
It is true: the villains who enslaved and subjugated are long dead. Yet, they are convenient scapegoats. When I look at this nation, I see some of the fruits of that oppression and I have more access to enjoy those fruits. I feel ashamed. The shame comes from the truth that I am complicit in continuing the legacy of oppression, even if that complicity isn’t active. But the lie that contributes to that shame is that “this is just the way it is” or that “justice is impossible” or even “white men don’t have a role to play in seeking justice.”
Repentance isn’t dwelling on shame. It is working through the shame. Marx said that shame is a revolutionary emotion. 2 By working through our shame–confessing the truth while rejecting lies–we can begin to see a way forward. By confessing the goodness of sex while rejecting the lies that sex is dirty, I can learn how to worship God and love my wife with a liberated sexuality. By confessing the dark history of my society and the painful truth of my present privilege while, at the same time, continuing to learn my role in seeking justice, I can find true joy, rather than a false joy based upon avoidance of the truth.
It would seem that our society has become experts at avoiding shame, rather than working through shame. When we can name that shame, recognize our internalized anger, and direct the anger at its most appropriate target, we can create space for liberation. Anger at ourselves for inaction can spur us towards action in the future. Anger at a system that marginalizes people and steals their voices can move us to tearing that system down.
Which brings us back to repentance, and to Lent. Feeling shame is an invitation to repentance. It is a deep feeling that something is wrong that manifests at self-anger. If we can open up space to examine that shame, to talk about that shame, and to confess that shame, we are on the path of repentance. And when we collectively repent as our response to collective shame, it is revolutionary.
Lent reminds us of the time when Jesus entered the wilderness, said “no” to three temptations and, angry at the Devil, chose a different way.
Lent is, to me, a time to enter into that wilderness. It is the place of the prophets. In the wilderness, the prophets encountered God and heard a message of truth–one that unmasked lies and increased national feelings of shame. But, for Israel to repent, it needed to confront and work through that shame.
The wilderness was the place that the prophet John spoke the truth to Israel and called them to liberation. It was the place where Jesus spoke the truth to Satan (the animating force of Empire) and became, himself, the path to liberation.
When avoidance of shame becomes a pathology, we demonize truth tellers. This is why Israel killed its prophets. It is why we kill ours (or imprison or ostracize them). From the wilderness, the voice of the prophets calls us to repent.
Lent is a time for us to enter into that wilderness. To look inward together to God’s presence through silence and prayer. To listen to the prophetic voices calling us to repentance. To name truth and expose lies. To work, together, for God’s liberation.
Lent is a reminder that this work of repentance will always be with us. This shouldn’t discourage us. It means that God is always with us, opening up a new way forward. That the way things are now need not remain. A penitential life is a life of truth, of moving more deeply into the good life of God, together.
Rather than simply giving up chocolate or television or meat for Lent (though you should perhaps consider giving up all of those for good anyhow), consider opening up space in your life for silence, prayer, and truth telling–a place to hear the prophetic word. 3
O Lord, the Great and Awesome God
you have given us a covenant of love
but we have sinned against you
and our neighbor.
O Lord, forgive us.
Remember us in the land of our sojourn.
Pull us away from the road
that leads to death
and give us life.
We ask this though Jesus Christ your Son,
who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.
-- from Missio Dei‘s Prayers for Lent
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