Social Repentance and Change


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Urban brick wall

Herb Montgomery | April 16, 2021

“American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.”

This week’s reading is another post-Easter appearance story. This one is found in the gospel of Luke:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:36-48)

The gospels’ post resurrection appearance stories follow a familiar pattern that meets the expectations of the communities each version was written for.

Some of the Greeks’ expectations appear in the Works of Plato:

“So that if any one’s body, while living, was large by nature, or food, or both, his corpse when he is dead is also larger; and if corpulent, his corpse is corpulent when he is dead; and so with respect to other things. And if again he took pains to make his hair grow long, his corpse also has long hair. Again, if any one has been well whipped, and while living had scars in his body, the vestiges of blows, either from scourges or other wounds, his dead body also is seen to retain the same marks. And if the limbs of anyone were broken or distorted while he lived, the same defects are distinct when he is dead. in a word, of whatever character any one has made his body to be while living, such will it distinctly be, entirely or for the most part for a certain time after he is dead.” (The Works of Plato: The Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, Euthyphron, and Lysis by George Burges, p. 229)

Plato goes on to say that this permanence in life and after death also applies to a person’s soul.

I don’t think we can make any conclusions about post-mortem realities from the passage in Luke, but these stories were certainly written to meet the expectations of the communities they were written for. They matched their expectations for what the bodies of any person who had died or been killed would be like.

The section of this week’s passage that I believe holds the most promise for our work today is the part that points to the resurrection of Jesus as offering repentance and forgiveness to the society in which Jesus was crucified.

To perceive what connects the resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness we need to understand the social nature of forgiveness.

For the Hebrew prophets, forgiveness was not merely for personal, private or individual sins, but also for the people’s political, public, social sins. Consider the social sins and the national nature of forgiveness in the following passages:

“ . . . the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven.” (Isaiah 33:24)

“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” (Jeremiah 5:1)

“No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

“In those days, at that time,” declares the LORD, “search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare.” (Jeremiah 50:20)

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:19)

“Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” (Hosea 14:2)

“When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive?” (Amos 7:2)

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

Again, the forgiveness written of in each of these passages is a social forgiveness for the sins of systemic injustice and oppression of the vulnerable and marginalized within the writer’s society.

The kind of repentance that leads to that kind of forgiveness, then, is a social rethinking of the current social course of injustice and implies a society, not just a few individuals, choosing to embrace a different path filled with a more just set of policies for the polity.

American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.

Exchanging the public for the personal, or choosing to focus on the private instead of the political, has had a long history, especially among Christians, of being used by the powerful to protect their privilege.

This past Easter I read a powerful poem by the very talented poet, Kaitlin Shetler. The poem’s title is State. The very first line reads:

“my sins did not
nail him to
the cross
that was the state”

In the poem Shetler goes on to contrast confusing the “personal” for the “principalities,” and the “personal” with “state-sanctioned oppression.”

You can read the poem in its entirety, and I recommend doing so, on Kaitlin’s Facebook page for her poetry:

And now we can put all the pieces of this week’s passage together. The passage states,

“The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day so that repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

Remember what we’ve been saying for the past few weeks. The cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching, and it was intended to be permanent. It was meant to silence Jesus’ calls for change, but the resurrection overturns it. The resurrection undoes and reverses everything accomplished by Jesus’ death. It overturns the state-sanctioned violence that places Divine solidarity on the side of the Roman state instead of on the side of the kind of society envisioned in the teachings of Jesus. The resurrection causes the vision of that kind of society to be born anew and to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. The resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death, even just one more death, but by resurrecting life. It answers death with death-reversing life. It answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. And it places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the crucified community, the marginalized, the excluded, the vulnerable.

The resurrection unequivocally proclaims the solidarity of the God of the Jesus story with the marginalized in any given society. And in this way, I believe, that symbol of resurrection, of love conquering hate, of life overcoming death, of justice not being able to be held by an unjust tomb, has the potential to inspire a kind of social repentance, a rethinking of a society’s current path. The hope is that this rethinking will cause a different doing. That we will choose to shape society differently. And it’s that different doing that, within the justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, is envisioned as ultimately bringing social change and liberation, i.e. forgiveness of social sins and different path set for the future.

This is a story that is meant to give us pause. It’s a story that is meant to create in us a reassessment of the kind of society we find ourselves surviving in. And it’s a story that is intended to awaken in us the choice to shape a different kind of society, where those presently marginalized are centered, where surviving is replaced with thriving, a society that is a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

It may take a more political lens of interpreting the Jesus story for us to arrive at this conclusion and vision of our present society as well as our work toward something better. But it’s a choice that I believe in the end will be worth it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does focussing through the lens of the Jesus story on public, political, systemic sins of our larger society, rather than only our personal, private, individual sins impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week