Make Repentance Great Again
I was teaching high school English in Nashville when a parent tried to get me fired for declining to say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Before it got to that point, the parent and I had a phone conversation, which I’d believed settled things. Having aired the concern to an administrator, the parent had been given my phone number. By trying to talk our potential conflict out privately as a first step, we were now in compliance with a policy, which was derived from the counsel of Jesus of Nazareth: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (Matthew 18:15).
As we concluded, I said I’d love to talk more as time permits. He said he’d be up for that so long as it was “in the right spirit.” I felt a chill and realized then that I had very little control over what spirit (or attitude) he sensed in anything I did or said. He could characterize our exchange to others in any way he wanted to.
As it turned out, he was done submitting to conversation as equals. While pursuing his case against me, he would not agree to speak with me about the thing I didn’t do that bothered him again. Meaning, I came to know feelingly, is a consensual activity. At that stage in my teaching career, I had more than one superior who was committed to protecting me, and I kept my job. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to remember that millions of people around the world who are targeted by those who hope to bring them down do not have that advantage.
I hadn’t thought of that conversation in years, but it’s come back to me since the domestic terror attack occurred at and within our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. There is still so much to process in regard to what was being ordered, joked about, or incited in the speech of millions of Americans who were and remain scandalized by the results of our election. I believe a number of people I have known and even loved for much of my life are waking up and wondering if something they’ve said or played along with can be meaningfully (or legally) tied to a white nationalist terror putsch which, it seems, is still underway. I’ve thought it important to contact a person or two to let them know that I want what’s best for them and their families. This doesn’t mean that I support any person who’s proven to be abusive continuing to exercise power over other people.
“What’s best,” often involves standing down. Declining to platform, support, fund or partner with citizens and elected officials who have incited or participated in a white supremacist terror putsch isn’t divisive, hateful, or an instance of cancel culture. It’s baseline moral seriousness. Every fact is a function of relationship. In a nation of equals, assuming responsibility for your own words and actions, especially when they prove to have been demonstrably abusive, is one actionable way of loving your country.
Of course, this love has to begin with particular people, a neighbor, for instance, before it can be said to apply to a city, a state, or a nation. Whether you’re a citizen, pundit, or an elected official, you’re faced with the question of scope in regard to the content you’ve created or promoted for whatever reason. We become what we promote, mediate and abide.
“I didn’t mean that,” is of limited
usefulness when it comes to assuming responsibility. Are we responsible for the lies we’ve allowed other people to voice in our presence unchallenged? I kind of think we are.
Repentance is changing your mind and letting your words and actions follow. It isn’t a defeat. It’s a moral breakthrough that benefits self and others. It might mean less power to control your fellow creatures, a slight dip in income, or even a prison sentence, but true
repentance is never bad news. As it happens, “repent,” is the first word of Jesus’ gospel. According to more than one sacred tradition, the wholeness of a genuinely undivided life requires owning your own words and behavior in relationship to others which will always involve change. To love a person is to love a process and to know oneself as a process. No one gets saved without changing their minds and bearing fruit in keeping with the change. It’s in the details of words made flesh. Faith without deeds is dead.
In Tennessee, many famous people — in and out of office — claim to be men or women of faith. “Faith,” in this sense, is a best-selling generalization, which can win elections, garner followers and accrue “clicks” in our reaction-driven economy. “Faith,” the generalization, can be easily defanged with a simple question: faith in what exactly? It’s time to put this question to Gov. Bill Lee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Bill Hagerty in regard to their own decision to cave and conform to an escalating abusive culture that’s been slow to recognize the results of our free and fair elections. Are they interested in the positions of public service they sought and won? If they regard their offices as mere platforms for some other end that doesn’t serve the well-being of most Tennesseans, we need to know. There are worse things than not being in public office.
“Make Repentance Great Again” is something of a nonsense imperative, because I’m not sure anyone’s ever felt great at the starting line of repentance. It’s a necessarily meek practice. But there’s no greatness, no human future — no salvation — without it. It’s an invitation to be a human being among human beings, an invitation to know the joy of truly human relationships. In this sense, repentance might be said to be the final human seriousness. I hope it catches on in a new and unprecedented way in the land of the free and the home of the brave.