Economics of Repentance (Pt. 1)

What was Jesus’ first public command?

Think about it. “Love your neighbor?” Good thought.

“Judge not, lest you be judged?” You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

No, it’s much messier, much more offensive; much less agreeable. Jesus’s command was to repent. I’ll paraphrase it this way: “change your mind and life.”

Repentance is central to Jesus’ preaching. In Matthew and Mark’s account, a call to repentance is among Jesus’ first public words (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15).

But what does repentance mean? If you grew up like me in evangelical circles, you learned something like this: repentance  means turning from sinfulness and towards God; agreeing with God about your sin. Repentance is turning from making yourself God.

But as I have continued to follow Jesus, I have learned how multi-faceted repentance is. As the work of the Spirit is dynamic throughout our lives, so is the nature of repentance. Whereas repentance is frequently taught as a static, one-time turning from secret individual sins, I see Jesus in the scriptures challenging every aspect of our lives: what we do with our minds and hands, how we spend our money, and how we view others in our own culture and around the world. Jesus reforms the whole person. Here are a few examples from the scriptures.

“Bear Fruit in Keeping with Repentance”

For those of you who don’t speak King James English, let me paraphrase Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8. “Let your repentance be perpetual, ongoing.” Repentance is not a solitary event done at the altar on Sunday, or during a teary conversion, but a lifestyle, a constant reforming of one’s mind and behavior (Rom. 12:2). I believe our reforming forefathers in the faith tapped into this with their phrase semper reformanda (“always reforming”). Repentance doesn’t always look like a silent prayer, but can also call for a revolution of structures, thoughts, and processes. If you are a Christian, you have a whole life full of repenting ahead of you.

Restitution and Restoration

Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) was a wealthy man through exploitation and theft. He met Jesus, heard his teaching, received His grace, and his initial reaction was recognizing restitution as part and parcel of a proper response to Jesus. Why didn’t he say, “Lord, I’m not going to steal anymore, but will now act justly”? He knew he could not continue to live in his wealth and stature and follow Jesus. Once injustice is committed, a simple return to “playing by the rules” is not the proper response, as it does not acknowledge the damage done by the exploiter. If damage is done by one’s motor vehicle, whether bodily or to property, society doesn’t demand that the driver repent by driving within the law from then on. Amends must me made, and that which was lost must be restored, relationally and economically. Zacchaeus knew this, and acted accordingly.  Read our other contributors’ thoughts on Zacchaeus here. (I’ll be diving into what restitutive repentance might look like in “Economics of Repentance pt. 2,” a forthcoming post.)  

Economics of Repentance

Read Luke 3:10-14. The crowds ask John the Baptist what repentance from sin looks like. He responds with strictly socio-economic commands. Share your clothes and food with the poor. Tax Collectors, don’t steal. Soldiers, don’t extort people by force and violence, and be content with your wages. This is a far cry from the intensely internal-focused, individual repentance we hear coming from the majority of our pulpits. In a world full of poverty, hunger, and oppression, why have we not found a space in the modern evangelical conversation for the economics of repentance? I fear the answer.

In conclusion, an encouragement. While the above discussion reveals aspects of repentance we must amend, we ought not forget who moves in and calls us to this action: The risen Jesus. He has made promises. He is trustworthy. This turning we speak of, this intentional wrecking of one’s thoughts and beliefs for others is life-giving. I echo the men of Jerusalem in Acts 11:18 in their prayer that God would grant us “repentance that leads unto life.”

 

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Drugged Dream (Awakening #1)

And all of a sudden, my eyes were open. Like coming to from a drug-induced dream. I saw it there, plain as day.

The white church in America is still deep in denial about the hardships of black neighbors — if not actively contributing to it. It could even be argued it’s a blissful ignorance.

Before you write me off and click away, listen to my story. It’s probably very similar to yours.

I grew up in Great Bridge, VA, upper middle class, lacking for nothing. I feel very fortunate for the life and access afforded to me by my parents. I’ve always leaned Republican, and never voted Democrat. I went to a Bible College, and most importantly, I love Jesus Christ. Sound familiar? I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Evangelical Christian.

Problem is, I love Jesus so much that I will follow Him to wherever that takes me. That brings us to the present, and my waking from a very comfortable dream to a terrible reality. [1] It’s strange, uncomfortable, but most importantly: true.

Throughout my youth and early adulthood, I held the view that all have equal opportunity in America. I had no reason to believe otherwise. Land of the Free. I loved that the Civil Rights Movement happened, and that black people’s lives now have equal protection in our country. The horrible injustices of the past have been fixed, and we’ve passed that dark chapter. I knew there is disproportionate poverty in the black community, but there are plenty of success stories of poor people from every race rising above and succeeding. If anyone remained in poverty, they were not taking advantage of resources available to everyone in our country. These views I used to hold.

Here is what Jesus has taught me, and is teaching throughout the ages. God has a special place for the broken-hearted, the oppressed, the marginalized. Our assessment of what got them into that situation should not be considered in our reaction to their plight. Many times what I see is people diagnosing poverty or calamity in others’ lives as a personal excuse. A friend reminded me that in John 9, the Disciples are concerned about the cause of a man’s blindness. Who sinned, him or his parents? Jesus doesn’t even validate their criteria, but simply enters into the suffering and heals the man.

In that situation, the cause of the man’s suffering was left to the mystery of God. Yet in other places the Bible is very clear about why the poor struggle. It is because people with power and wealth hold them down and keep them underfoot. Jesus calls out and condemns these actions.

It is also clear enough — if we listen — why our black neighbors face hardships here in America today. The facts and testimonies of black America say this: “We are viewed as lesser than our white neighbors.” White America, and the church, has consistently denied that claim and experience. Why is it so hard to believe that the people group we were hosing down and lynching half a century ago and had enslaved for 300 years are still in the throes of a system that suppresses them? This is one of the many sins of our nation, and it is being passed down, from generation to generation.

In these past years when these issues of violence towards black people has been center stage (Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, etc.), the white church has been deafeningly silent. After just sitting and watching, I’ve come to see how that silence is perceived by our neighbors of color: affirmation, compliance, and an implicit blessing of this violence through inaction and muteness.

In the weeks after Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop, Alton Sterling was shot point-blank while on his back, and five police officers were slain on duty, one thing I know is clear. Jesus is weeping. He is holding their dead bodies on the ground, weeping. He calls us to join Him. This post is just a start. We’ll have a few other voices join us to speak about Race in America and following Jesus. We are starting a conversation. If you follow Jesus Christ, this is worth your time, and an issue that I firmly believe is your Christian duty to think, pray, and act on. Let’s start with the thinking and talking part. Join us, especially if this makes you uncomfortable. I promise and truly believe God will do a work through it.


[1] The image of “the dream” is borrowed from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me.