Making up for lost time...

I figure the length of this post makes up for the lack of recent activity. The following is a reflection I have written in response to one of my papers

Repentance: Turn or burn? Or yearn to turn?

In a society where individual fulfillment is a free-for-all of personal preference, even at the expense of others, the message of repentance is as unpopular as ever. Why would anyone want to turn towards Gods, especially considering the weak alternative that Christianity supposedly offers? The unfortunate part is that the Christian response has all too often countered within the same framework; namely, an individual reform with individual benefits, most often associated with avoiding hell. As the traditional warning goes, “turn or burn!” So the tendency to motivate repentance has been to, “scare them into the kingdom.” However, most of you would agree, this message nowadays falls on deaf ears. A faith that focuses solely on the afterlife appears completely irrelevant to the modern individual. Perhaps what is needed is a redefining of a Christian understanding of repentance that begins to realize that identifying with Jesus is about more than just the afterlife.

In the first century, when Jesus preached repentance, he directly addressed the Jewish expectation for what the coming kingdom of God would be. Any message of repentance, then, would have been understood, similar to the prophets, as a turning towards God to what it meant to be the true Israel. Any sort of individual reform was only within this community framework. Jesus’ message falls in line with this pattern. What is unique about Jesus’ repentance, however, is that it is a redefinition of what the Jews expected the kingdom to look like. Repentance, still thoroughly communal, was a turning away from violent revolution and ritualistic works, towards an identity defined by sacrifice, truly taking up the cross with Jesus.

If Jesus’ message of repentance to his audience was about radical identification with God, the implication is that repentance now still means the same. Jesus acknowledged the expectation in the Jews and responded with a call to turn to towards him, not for purpose of being morally pure, but for the purpose of being truly identified as the people of God. Repentance, then, is identifying with who we truly are.

Now, obviously morals and ethics are a part of what it means to identify oneself to Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount talks about (Matthew 5-7). However, the ethic of Jesus is about identity. This challenges the narrow individual ethic so often understood to be at the core of Christianity. Now, before anyone gets up in arms, or alternatively thinking this means Christianity is easy, let’s touch on the implication of what it means to identify with Jesus through repentance.

The main distinction, just like the Jews longed to return to true community, is that repentance is our response to the longing we all have to belong. Hence the second part of the title, “yearn to turn.” Yearning connects with the desire we all of have for true community. An individual understanding of Christianity and repentance as just a moral ethic fails to address this innate part of our being. Perhaps this is the hardest part about repentance, because no longer can we simply respond individually, reforming our actions to some sort of moral ideal. Now we have to identify with Jesus in the context of community. In this way, we repent together.

Now, I am sure this is an awkward conversation for many, especially when issues of faith are understood primarily as a personal choice. As an individual, repentance towards God is often a simple shift in attitude, possibly affecting the way we live and act towards one another, but still primarily a personal quest to connect with God. While perhaps fulfilling for time, when the spiritual fulfillment of this supposed connection to God is gone, or our will to shape our attitude towards God runs dry, we are left alone to ponder our mistakes. Communal repentance, however, involves a transparent vulnerability as we connect with God that goes against the notion of individual striving. There may still be striving, don’t get me wrong. The point is that it is no longer done alone. In fact, perhaps the act of identifying with Jesus, symbolized in our identification with each other, will actually lead us to live better lives morally and ethically?

Repentance seen in this light is difficult to envision in our individualistically minded society. “I’ll do what I want, and you do what you want…” Will this modern motto not lead to cultural unity and peace? I am not so sure… However, if we realize the shortcomings that come with an individualistic approach to life and faith, then the message of repentance towards true community as Jesus calls for is one that provides a place where lonely striving becomes obsolete. “Turn or burn” repentance is lonely and ultimately selfish as if the only thing that matters is my personal salvation. But “yearn to turn” repentance acknowledges the reality that Jesus came to create community, and the invitation to repent is about identifying with just that. The challenge, then, is that your life and faith be identified with repentance that reaches the core of who you are, a relational person yearning for true community.

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