Let’s think about “repentance” a little bit. My thesis is going to be that it is a really good idea sometimes and a really bad idea sometimes.
The Greek verb normally translated “repent” is metanoein, which can be narrowly translated as “change your mind.” In that way of looking at it, the prefix meta- is the “change” part. What is to be changed is represented by the noun nous meaning mind. But other things could be changed, too. Besides being asked to change what we think, we might be asked to change how we feel or what we intend or what we are doing.
Who should change what he or she is doing? Why?
The form in which this came to me yesterday was: “to change your mind, you have to have a mind.” And immediately after that, I remembered a discussion from my long ago legislative days. We were talking about when to lobby a certain Senator in the Oregon State Legislature and we decided to call him off the floor in advance of the vote. Why? Because much more powerful than any commitment he made to anyone was the persuasiveness of whoever talked to him last.
When we talk about a “mind,” we mean to imply some continuity of views. I can sit down with the Caucus at Starbucks and on any given topic, give the views that each of the members has been taking on that subject. When the possibility that someone has “changed his mind” comes up—and that happens with amazing frequency for a group of…um…mature…men and women—it is a change from that position. We have opinions that are retained in similar form from one time to the next and we change those opinions when we think we should; we know hold to hold ‘em and know how to fold ‘em.
Consider by contrast a person whose views don’t have that stability, that crucial component of what we call “mind.” Imagine a person who is pathetically eager to please and whose view take on the form of whoever he is with. That person doesn’t have a “mind” in this sense so it cannot be “changed” in the sense that metanoia presupposes.
Martin E. P. Seligman, in his marvelous book Helplessness, tells about “the Tuscaloosa Plan” for under-assertive men. It was a pretty simple treatment. Each man was given a meaningless task, like sanding and sanding and sanding a block of wood. Every now and then the workshop supervisor would come by and yell at him for doing it wrong. “You’re sanding with the grain!” he would yell. “What an idiot!” So the helpless schlub “repents.” Sort of. Changing in the direction of the person yelling at him is why he is in the workshop. He is an “over-repenter.” He needs to learn to stop repenting.
And in the workshop, he does. The next time the supervisor comes around, he finds the poor guy sanding against the grain of the wood as he was told to do. “What an idiot!” bellows the supervisor, “You should be sanding with the grain.” This goes on and on day after day until repentance, which is the life plan of this man finally runs out. He rises up in holy wrath and tells the supervisor where he can go and who his parents are. The supervisor apologized profusely—that is his job too—and the man is released from the workshop for the day and given whatever luxuries the center has to offer. Hot fudge sundaes, let’s say.
The next day, he is right back in the workshop being castigated for doing what he was told to do until he finally refuses to repent. Eventually, the day comes when the supervisor wanders by the bench and takes a deep breath and the former over-repenter wheels on him and says, “Don’t even think it!” At that point, the patient is declared cured and released from the treatment.
What was his problem? He was told to change his mind so often and so painfully that he decided it would be better not to have a mind. To every demand, a shrug and then compliance. He needs to stand up for himself in at least the rudimentary ways and that will require refusing to repent. He will have a mind and he will not change it.
John the Baptist came preaching, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” When we look at the population he was addressing, we have no difficulty knowing in general what he meant. The way they are thinking—and feeling and intending and behaving—is not in line with the way God wants it to be. That means they need to change it.
This familiar scene—familiar, by the way, to every street corner political activist or religious evangelist—does not imagine that each and every person in the crowd should repent. It means that you (plural)—that y’all—should repent. The idea that a culture could “repent” sounds odd only because we so seldom mix the taken for granted ideas of religion and apply them to politics or vice versa. But when you try to do it, it turns out that it is easy and natural. Furthermore, I have an example.
In 1960, Harry Bredemeier and Jackson Toby proposed a new kind of text for courses normally called “Social Problems.” The direction they proposed is not the direction textbooks went for those courses, but I was drawn to it right away. The subtitle of their book is “Costs and Casualties of an Acquisitive Society.” The way we have organized our society regularly drives people into difficult circumstances. I’ll pick a few. We drive people into over-conformity (p. 133) and deviance (under-conformity) p. 215; into ritualism—accepting means as ends (p. 290)—and into a “search for oblivion” (p. 428), where anything that makes it hurt less is chosen.
“We” are over-acquisitive as Bredemeier and Toby see it and “we” need to repent. We need to change our minds and change our ways in by those means, we will reduce the “costs and casualties” that “we” are producing by our current choices. John the Baptist would have been entirely at home in the world this text shows us.
But what about me? Do I need to change? What if I have been one of the few voices of social sanity. I have been arguing that we all pay the price of allowing our society to degenerate into camps of very rich (a small camp, but gated) and the very poor (a very large camp). I get pressed a lot about holding this view, let’s say, and even more for arguing that we should change the policies that sustain it. Hanging on desperately to my position could very well be my job. Changing my mind, as the word metanoein, taken without context, argues, is the wrong thing for me to do. All the bad guys are arguing that I should “repent,” but my conscience and the tattered remnants of my integrity urge me to hold firm.
I’m sure you see the point of that simple illustration and I can’t imagine that you would want to argue against it. I don’t either. But if we don’t, then we are left with “repentance” is a good thing for some people, but not for others. Changing the direction of the social contract—beginning to limit it in preparation for reneging on it entirely—is a change we ought not make. We should consider the case for change, reject it, and find a way to hold our commitments in place.
So the easy call for people to “repent” turns out to presuppose some constant position which is mistaken or inapplicable or harmful. If I don’t have a position at all, the best an advocate of repentance could do would be to urge me to take a position and hold it. If it is the right position, and if he has no message other than “Repent!” then he ought, on the basis of his values, leave me alone and find someone else to talk to. If I do have a position and the speaker thinks it goes in the wrong direction, he would have to show that the direction is wrong and why and why his direction would be better.
There is no reason those things cannot be done but both of them go beyond the call for repentance. If you are going to go seriously into the repentance business, what you really need is people who have a position. No position, no changing the position. You need people who have the wrong position. You don’t want to go changing the good positions just because you like to see change. And if persuasion is the preferred mode of inducing repentance, it would be a great help if people know why they are holding the positions they are holding.
I haven’t dealt with a person who “holds a position” because he will be punished if he does not. I know that’s a significant source of positions that ought to be challenged, but those people don’t need to be reformed; they need to be freed.