February 12 #3 Repent Luke 3:8-13
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’
This years Ash Wednesday coincided with our Flemington People’s Pantry food rescue and redistribution program. Alongside the offer of free fruit and vegetables we offered to mark participants foreheads or hand with a sign of the cross in ash with the traditional liturgical words “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
I was pleasantly surprised that indeed many people were interested in receiving this sign; including people of different faiths or no faith! As Sara Miles has said there is something universal about being touched by a stranger and told the truth about ourselves in a culture that so often seeks to ‘sell’ us life whilst denying death.
This universal truth is relatively easy to communicate, but to be honest I found the second line of the traditional blessing, “Repent and believe the good news” getting stuck in my throat as I marked the hand of a Muslim woman and an ‘ocker’ Aussie with ash.
‘Repent’ doesn’t seem like an easy word to proclaim or connect in our hyper tolerant multi/inter/no faith inner city context but as Ched Myers says; “Repentance is at the heart of the gospel; take it away and you have something other than biblical faith.”
Myers sees the ‘consciousness of sin’ as having steadily waned in Christian cultures. He describes Liberal progressive Christians as committed to a positivism that life and history are getting better (even if slowly), and so they seek gentle reforms for which ‘repentance’ seems extreme. Orthodox Christians keep the idea of sin but prefer to trust ‘realist politics’ or ‘physchology’. Evangelical Christians also use the language of sin but make it something personal and privatised where, influenced by the ‘confected outrage’ and ‘blame and shame’ culture of our dominant, merit based, media culture, they can tend to reduce sin to “feeling bad” about oneself. Repentance, consequently, is seen increasingly in terms of repairing one’s self esteem.
For the classical prophets of Israel, repentance represented a denouncing and break with the historical project of their people and society, with its illusions of a benign past and future. They called to a deep understanding of that history (not to escape from it…) but with the hope of reclaiming and redeeming the project.
Luke’s John the Baptist stands firmly in this tradition! Repentance for John was not a moral exhortation to “be better” but is presented as a historical ultimatum to a society and system with fatal contradictions. Jesus adopts this theology of repentance when he ties it to his own proclamation of a new ‘Kingdom’ of God as a dis-continuous alternative to the established ‘kingdom’ /order of his day.
Wendell Berry suggests that we have become dependant upon what we know is wrong. “We all live by robbing nature but our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue.” We have become so internally and externally reliant upon our illusions and excesses and appetites that we simply cannot imagine the world differently. Like John the Baptist, he refuses to accept the addicts excuse describing entitlement as an addiction to interlocking mechanisms of social formation, denial and dependence in capitalist culture. To repent of such requires more than dramatic exhortation of truth, (we have become numb to shock in our entertainment culture). It also takes more than an individualistic or private religious experience but the development of collective and long term disciplines of turning around which Myers calls a political therapy and a therapeutic politics.
Invoking the wilderness ministry of John, Myers concludes “The biblical theology of repentance gives people, (churches and our social institutions) permission to acknowledge that their historical project has arrived at a dead end, that they are captive to demons of self destruction, that their myths of entitlement are the problem, and that they can, and must, change directions in order to continue.”
Ched Myers ‘Who Will Roll Away the Stone’, Orbis, Maryknoll, 1994, p.171
Wendell Berry ‘The Futility of Global Thinking’, Harpers, September, p.19