This is the first blog which will be doing the work of examining what I have written over the past five years, before setting goals for 2014. The first five posts will be looking at the five-year plan which I made five years ago.
The first topic: REPENT.
What do you think of when you hear the directive: repent? Do you think of some nagging memory of guilt: having walked out of a restaurant without paying, some small exaggeration which has turned into a lie you have to maintain? perhaps a sexual indiscretion?
Why did I put REPENT #1 on my list of things to do in my five-year plan?
I read about John the Baptist calling the people to repentance. What image do you have in your mind of the kind of “sins” for which John was calling the people to repentance?
I think John was speaking specifically to the leaders of Judaism, the Temple Priests and the Pharisees, a group which John referred to as “a brood of vipers.” I think John was calling out the leaders for having abandoned their religion, and their role as leaders in that religion.
John looked at his society and said, this is not the way it is supposed to be. For centuries the leaders of Judaism had accommodated themselves to the rulers of the various empires under which they were subsumed. Under the Greeks they had completely Hellenized their tradition and in some cases even made Judaism illegal. It was a descendent of the Maccabees, John Hyrcanus, who “invited” Rome to invaded Israel in order to prop up his role in the government.
So at the time of John the Baptist, the priests of Jerusalem held court in a newly built Roman style temple, used Greek organizational structures like Sanhedrim, and turned authority over to the Roman Governor who terrorized the people with mass slaughter, crucifixions, and enslavements.
And the people were intimidated, isolated, and without hope. John’s call to repentance was a societal call, a cultural call, to the people and to the leaders who had sold them out, that brood of vipers.
I think we need a similar repentance as a society.
So what specifically do we need to repent of? I would say that despite everything that our religion teaches, despite all of the teachings of Jesus and the Jewish tradition, we have allowed ourselves to believe that if we each act selfish enough – act according to our individual interests – a greater good will result for all of us. This is the popular version of Adam Smiths theory that we have so conveniently accepted.
There was plenty of evidence that it wasn’t working out that well for most of the people in the world, but it seemed to be working out for us, and we could delude ourselves into thinking that eventually it would work out for them. Now, it turns out, it hasn’t worked out for any of us. For ultimately, it is all this stuff that we have created, which will have been the cause of the destruction of our world.
We need to repent for allowing ourselves to believe that it was all right to live the way we have been living. It wasn’t all right, and we should have known better.
I believe those of us in leadership in our churches have played the same role with respect to our contemporary culture as the priests at the time of John. Try to imagine separating Christianity from U.S. Democracy from Capitalism in your congregations. I mean really separating, as in being critical of our way of life.
Try seriously looking at the notion of divine providence; the notion that our wealth is evidence that God favors us? This is an insidious notion which is deeply imbedded in our religious and cultural practice. I think this notion; that our material well-being is proof of our righteousness; is a sinful, unbiblical idea and confronting this idea is at the heart of our work of repentance.
Repent for living as we have been living. That is a huge ask. It begins with acknowledging that we are implicated in the wrongs of this world. We must rid ourselves of the cultural norms which keep us from seeing our complicity. We must turn around: see clearly our mistaken ways, and wrestle ourselves free from our habits and those of everyone around us. It is a huge task, but it is the beginning of our work on the five-year plan.
Repentance first means turning around; in our thoughts and in or actions. Even if we stay in place; if we turn around we will see more clearly and any steps we take will start to be in the right direction. So that is my call. Turn around and look at yourself and the world around you, and go deep into your values to see what needs to change. We can do it.