Pentecost 7B: Repentance is Healthier than Denial

The readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Amos 7:7–15

Psalm                    Psalm 85:8–13

New Testament     Ephesians 1:3–14

Gospel                   Mark 6:14–29

The Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel Readings all tell us that repentance is a much healthier stance to take in life than denial. This time of pandemic has also been a time of the exposure of much to repent of.

We need to turn from denial and to turn toward the God of equity and justice.

Our nation is hearing many prophets’ voices pointing out that much in our American history and much in our present has been wrong. We have ravaged those we have defined as “other.” A privileged few have prospered by killing indigenous peoples and stealing their land; by exploiting the labor of Africans we kidnapped and enslaved, by abusing and denegrating the Chinese and the Irish who built our cities and our railroads; by refusing full voting franchise to women and blacks; by making union organizational treacherous, by putting citizens of  Japanese-ancestry into concentration camps; by picking winners and losers and discouraging investment in whole sections of our cities through redlining. And the tainting of our criminal justice system festers on.

Today the prophetic voice is distributed through academia, the media, and our city streets. Thousands are saying, “It’s time to turn back to the highest ideals of democracy and justice for all. It’s time to undo our nation’s mistakes. It’s time to repent!”

But, as always, this call to repentance causes many to say, “Silence! Get out of here! We can’t stand to hear the prophetic call!”

Our former President initiated action to silence those who said there is such a thing as systemic racism in this country. In recent weeks, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho and Texas have all passed legislation that places significant restrictions on what can be taught in public school classrooms and, in some cases, public universities, too. Though the wording of these edicts is often vague and general, they all obviously seek to prevent people from hearing too much about the sins of racism, or feeling any kind of guilt or responsibility.

The New York Times opinion columnist, Ross Douthat, sought to express what he considers legitimate conservative criticism of what he considers the extremes of antiracist education. His primary complaint is that “…there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins” (NYT Week in Review, Sunday, July 4, page 9).

Well, I don’t know if such a theory is proper social psychology, but it sure sounds exactly like what prophets have been crying out to us for centuries.  All the framers of these new state laws, and perhaps Ross Douthat, say they don’t want any people of any race to be singled out for discomfort. But it is a plain and simple fact that it has been white people, and almost exclusively white men, who have been privileged throughout American history. And our white male privileged has hurt people.

And that history has been built into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So when the Texas Bill 3979 forbids teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States,” it is a blatant attempt to cover up the guilt and responsibility of white privilege built into the foundation of our nation. And that privilege has been sustained by too much of what has been built on that foundation.

The Declaration didn’t mean to include black men, the first peoples of this land, or any women of any race in the “Created Equal” clause. It’s signers had the temerity to call the First People “savages.” And if any Texan would take the time to actually read the “founding” Constitution they  would only get to the second article of the very first article to find that racism was built into the nation: slaves and “Indians” didn’t count when  a state’s  representation in the Congress and the amount of taxes paid were calculated. The second section of the fourth article neatly requires that escaped slaves who make it across state lines be returned to their owners.

So, are the Texas Republicans right in saying it is a crime to point out that  the founders built racism into our sacred documents? Is Ross Douthat right that it is an excessive and destructive theory that would say those who benefit from the long, long string of racist laws and structures should feel guilt and turn from their sins?

Are these voices not like that of the corrupt king and priest of Israel who said of Amos “The land is not able to bear his words—and who tried to silence him, saying, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Aren’t these voices, as they wax in their desire to silence the reminders of their sin, following in the tradition of Herodias who called for the head of John the Baptist when he persisted in calling out her guilt? Are not those who, out of political expediency, go along with such foolish denial of the truth, like Herod who had John’s head severed just to preserve his own image?

Psalm 85 says that God will speak peace. But God does not pronounce peace where there is no peace. He does so for those who are faithful. For those who “turn” to God in their hearts. And that word “turn” is of the utmost of importance in the Bible. It is the Hebrew word for repentance—changing direction in our lives.

If America is to be great it must repent and change direction. No legislator, no political party, and no political pundit should defend us when we stick our heads in the sand of our own long history of racism. We can and must, at the very same time, say we are proud and thankful to live in a democracy, but we also repent of our mistakes and work to repair our laws. We can and we must continue the great tradition of working towards a “more perfect Union.”

And every Christian who cherishes the sacred tradition of prophecy must open our ears and our hearts to every Amos or Christ-like figure who calls us to true peace and justice. We must do all we can to prevent the next prophet from having his head on a platter. We must listen, turn, and change our ways.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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