Humpday Homily #5 – Repentance

I’m finally watching Game of Thrones. Better late than never. It’s an epic series, as most will tell you, seemingly on pace to hit the level of a true “classic,” like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, or who knows, maybe it will gain the moment and cult following that will give it the kind of scope that the Star Wars franchise has. We’ll see.

Game of Thrones also represents the latest in the explosion of a relatively new film genre: TV episodes that form a series. HBO pioneered the genre with The Sopranos, using the medium of television to tell a story, something that feels almost readable, something that goes deep and wide, just like a good novel. And the time commitment required to watching a season of Game of Thrones or The Sopranos is about the same as reading a novel.

The makers of Game of Thrones have even commented on how they appreciate HBO and the television medium, preferring it, even, to a big budget film. Hence the creators of Game of Thrones are once again hooking up with HBO to produce Confederate, a speculative fiction series that starts with an alternative reality: What if the Civil War had ended in a stalemate? What if the Confederate States had resisted invasion by the North?

Confederate has taken some heat, especially after the recent racist-motivated violence in Charlottesville, but HBO and the makers of Confederate have doubled down in their support of the series.

Personally, I love the concept, for at least two reasons:

1) It demonstrates that history is fragile and uncertain. Random events can snowball into avalanches. Or, things that seem like a big deal at the time turn out to be fizzles. So, yeah, preserving the Union wasn’t a sure thing. Nothing is. The North wasn’t destined to win, and what if they hadn’t?

2) Confederate could potentially bring home the reality of how deeply rooted racism is in our history. Had the South won, slavery would have endured in North America, perhaps to the current day. South African Apartheid, i.e., the state’s official policy of institutionalized racism, was only abolished in 1991.

A sizable amount of white Americans live under the delusion that racism was taken care of, that the Civil War curbed the worst of it by eliminating slavery and then racism was eliminated in its entirety with the subsequent Civil Rights marches and bills in the 1960s. Hence right-wing talking heads on the radio and Fox News will say that racism isn’t an issue in America, because in America everyone has an equal shot at the American Dream.

But there’s more. Since America is a non-racist nation, then any action by liberals to address racism is merely a means to disempower white Americans, a sort of reverse-discrimination situation. So white Americans — and Christians as well — feel they are under attack and that discrimination and prejudice has been reversed and that now it is whites and Christians who have to face the greater obstacles in order to realize the American Dream and/or practice their religious beliefs. Hence when Trump talks about Charlottesville and speaks of violence “on both sides,” a sizable segment of the population finds this to be a fair take.

The reality, though, is that racism was never so simple. Racism has deep roots, and it didn’t get taken care of in the 60s, it was just redirected, in a similar way that slavery was redirected after the Civil War and institutionalized with Jim Crow laws. (See Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name)

The thing about racism in the United States is that we’ve never made it right. We’ve never nationally repented.

Repentance is a very old and very orthodox concept, central to Christianity, but the basic intuition underpinning repentance is ancient, embedded in all forms of religion and spirituality. Reduced to its most basic form, to repent is to change direction.

Growing up evangelical, I associated repentance with guilt. To repent was to feel guilty about one’s sins. It was, in this sense, more of an experience, often quite dramatic. The gist of it was to feel really extremely bad about your sin/s, to feel remorse deep within, and then in the midst of the anguish and through the tears of repentance one then comes to the realization that one’s sins are forgiven, forgiven via the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

This isn’t quite repentance, though. True repentance isn’t quite so sexy and need not involve so much drama because repentance is simply going a different direction in life. In the Christian Bible, the emphasis is on doing, not on feeling. Not that there’s anything wrong with having dramatic spiritual experiences, to the contrary they can be a source of renewal — it’s just that the litmus test of true repentance (from a biblical perspective) is found when one actually changes and goes a different direction.

The root of the biblical word itself carries the connotation of “turning,” with the idea that one turns their life around in some very crucial way. It’s like a long-term addict finally quitting. The change is substantial and means acknowledging that the old path is morally or spiritually bankrupt and that a change was/is essential.

As a nation, we haven’t turned the corner on racism. It’s been redirected and institutionalized in various perverted ways, and its continued presence has largely been ignored until Black Lives Mattered put racism back into our mainstream discussion.

By and large our culture opposes racism, the idea that one race is inherently superior to another. Few would come out and espouse an outright racist ideology. Even if racist ideologies are gaining traction, and even if neo-NAZI movements have a little momentum, it remains a minority point of view.

Racism is wrong, we tell ourselves, yet it endures, but repentance is that process by which we acknowledge sins and make a change. Without it any kind of reconciliation is impossible, but national repentance is something we’ve never really undergone. The white establishment in America has simply never repented, we’ve not acknowledge the historical depth and reach of racism nor have we created a society and culture within which all Americans, regardless of color or race, are on an equal and fair footing.

Racism is wrong, we tell ourselves, but it endures and will continue until we address the ways in which racism is embedded in our institutions and economics: people of color are the last to be hired and the first to be fired, the incarceration rate of African Americans is off the chart, white American children still have access to better education, and having brown or black skin marks you as suspicious and can put you in the cross-hairs of an officer’s hand gun.

Racism is wrong, we tell ourselves, but it will be with us until we truly change, but things don’t have to be this way. We can continue the work to move our culture toward “the beloved society” that Martin Luther King Jr. talked about. Such a vision, though, was deep and wide, and it was all-inclusive, a vision of solidarity and equality that will require a fairly radical shift from business as usual.

If there’s something good that might come out of this Trump Presidency, it would be that we take the social chaos we are now experiencing as an opportunity to dream big political dreams, to move beyond the centrist and moderate ideas of the Clinton and Obama era. Rather than a vision of making “incremental change” from the top down, rather than working with the rich and powerful, we need a movement of the people, by the people, and for the people, a movement from the grassroots that address the disadvantages and frustration and suffering that our culture currently creates.

True repentance would be a truly new vision of America combined with an acknowledgement of the depth of our sin. It’s something worth fighting for.

Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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