REPENTANCE, RECONCILIATION, AND BAPTISTS—
A RETROSPECTIVE AND LESSONS FROM OUR HISTORY
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
2015 T. B. MASTON LECTURES IN CHRISTIAN ETHICS
MARCH 23, 2015
President Hall, Dean Williford, Dr. Baker, members of the Logsdon Seminary community, members of the T.B. Maston Foundation Board, T. B. Maston Young Scholars, sisters and brothers:
Thank you for inviting me to be with you for the 2015 T.B. Maston Lectures. I was more than mildly surprised and pleased when Dean Williford contacted me last year and inquired whether I was “available and amenable” to present the lectures this year.
I am a bivocational Baptist pastor of New Millennium Church, an almost six-year old congregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Each Lord’s Day the people of New Millennium affirm who we are and our purpose with the following words.
We praise and worship God, together.
We petition God, together.
We proclaim God, together.
We welcome all persons in God’s love, together.
We live for God, in every breath and heartbeat, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus Christ, together.
In that spirit, I was delighted to accept Dean Williford’s gracious invitation to be with you and I thank God for the honor you have extended by inviting me. I also am grateful to Dr. Larry Baker and Ms. Peggy Gammill for their assistance in arranging my visit.
Dr. Ray Higgins (Coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas) has come from Little Rock to attend these lectures. Ray has been a tremendous blessing to me as a friend and colleague in ministry. I understand that Ray Higgins and Dr. Emmanuel McCall of McAfee School of Theology in Georgia may have somehow influenced you to consider inviting me to be the lecturer this year. I thank God for their gracious recommendation and pray that my observations and comments will not cause the Holy Spirit or them to be ashamed.
Several years ago I met Bill Jones (Chair, Board of Trustees, T.B. Maston Foundation for Christian Ethics) at the Baptist Conference on Sexuality and Covenant that convened at First Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. Bill gave me a copy of Both-And: A Maston Reader that is part of my personal library and shows how a white Baptist courageously and humbly confronted societal and global injustice through the lens of the gospel of Jesus. Thank you, Bill, for your work with the Maston Foundation, and I thank your fellow trustees and others whose generosity allows your work to continue.
The title of my remarks this evening is Repentance, Reconciliation, and Baptists-A Retrospective and Lessons from Our History. I intend to briefly reflect about the way repentance figures in how Baptists understand human salvation. Then I will recall our struggle to apply that understanding of repentance to societal oppression and injustice. Lastly, I will refer to an event from relatively recent history to illustrate how Baptist views about repentance and racism impact our ability to present the gospel of Jesus in ways that are coherent and compelling concerning racism as well as sin of sexism, classism, imperialism, militarism, and techno-centrism.
Tomorrow morning I will speak about Repentance, Reconciliation, and Baptists—Re-Imagining and Embracing the Subversive Gospel of Jesus in the 21st Century. I will offer suggestions for Baptist engagement—denominationally, academically, congregationally, and personally, concerning social ethics drawing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for “a radical revolution of values.” And I will suggest that by re-imagining and embracing the gospel of Jesus in that “subversive” way Baptist followers of Jesus will be inspired to confront racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, militarism, and techno-centrism. Although I consider these to be prevalent and entrenched causes of oppression today, I will conclude by affirming why I agree with my dear friend and brother from South Africa, Dr. Allan Aubrey Boesak, in daring to “speak of hope.”
Repentance, Reconciliation and Baptist Thought
The major religions of the world agree that the practice of repentance is an essential aspect of right fellowship with the Divine and others. Biblical Hebrew expresses the idea of repentance by two verbs: shuv (to return) and nacham (to feel sorrow). The New Testament uses the Greek word metanoia, a compound word that joins the preposition “meta” (after, with) with the verb “noeo” (to perceive, to think, the result of perceiving or observing) to convey the idea of afterthought, often expressed as a change of mind and conduct. The Bible uses the words “repent,” “repentance,” and “repented” more than 100 times.
Throughout the Bible, repentance is expressed as a call for a radical turn from one way of life to another because of the relationship one has with God. In that sense, repentance is more than sorrow or regret. It is conversion from self-worship, self-love, self-trust, and self-righteousness to God-love, God-trust, and righteousness according to God.
Repentance begins with admitting guilt for committing a wrong against God and others (whether by commission or omission)—meaning confession. Beyond that, Scripture shows that repentance involves turning away from the wrongful act or practice. Where the wrongful act or practice is against others, repentance requires attempting to make restitution for the wrong done and any injury caused by it or otherwise acting to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong or omission.
Baptists interpret the Bible, in fact all of life, through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus, like the other Hebrew prophets who lived before him, confronted the people of his time and place concerning the need for repentance. Mark’s Gospel reports that “after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15; see also, Matthew 4:12-17; Luke 4:14-15). The idea of repentance for Jesus—as was true for the Hebrew prophets before him—involved rejecting idolatry of self and turning to (embracing) God’s vision about how we relate to God and others.
Repentance for Jesus and the Hebrew prophets is not optional, morally or ethically. Repentance is an ethical imperative! Any notion of human salvation that omits or disregards the ethical imperative of repentance is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus.
The entire process of repentance is part and parcel of the divine undertaking of salvation. At its essence, salvation involves the process by which humanity is reconciled back to God in faithful love. Like everything else in salvation, repentance is a gift from God that we either accept or reject by faith. We do not repent on our own. Repentance is God-inspired, God-focused, and must be God-purposed. In repentance, humans embrace the grace of God to confess, confront, and turn from idolatry of self and to be people of divine love, justice, truth, and hope.
Ultimately, repentance inspires us with the mandate for reconciliation. Humans are estranged from God and one another due to sin. But the grace of God that makes repentance possible, no—morally and ethically required, also impels us to perceive that sin produces estrangement. Sin causes us to be estranged from God, our Creator. At the same time sin causes us to be estranged from ourselves, other persons, and the rest of creation. Through repentance, we are impelled to turn from the ethics of chaos, estrangement, and self-righteousness and embrace reconciliation and community.
Repentance is a faithful response to prophetic protest
The Bible also reveals that persons and societies are called to repentance by prophetic challenge, not internal impulse. In Genesis we read of God confronting Adam and Eve following the Fall and God confronting Cain after the murder of Abel. Then we read of Noah confronting his society before the Deluge. In Exodus Moses is the prophetic agent sent by God to confront the Egyptian empire with the repentance imperative concerning oppression of the Hebrew population.
The prophetic call to repentance is always an act of protest. It is an observation and objection that the way we live violates the Great Commandment that we love God with our whole being and love others as ourselves. Somehow, people are inspired to recognize that people are not living as God would have us live, meaning that our relationships are not right with God and each other, whether because of actions we take or duties we neglect. Somehow, the Spirit of God inspires people with insight about love, truth, and justice (righteousness) who are then impelled to protest conditions and situations that violate the love, truth, and justice of God. Without that protest, idolatry of self prevents us from recognizing our sinfulness and confronting the imperative for repentance.
So repentance does not begin with us. Repentance begins with God whose love, truth, and justice define the meaning of right and wrong, good and evil, healthful and harmful, just and unjust. God inspires people to see situations and relationships from the divine perspective. Then God commissions those inspired people to become prophetic protestors with God for love, justice, and truth and confront persons and societies to confess sinfulness, return to God, and restore what has been harmed because of sin.
There is no repentance, personally or societally, without the disturbance of that subversive protest, subversive in that it asserts a different and counter-cultural version about life, love, truth, and justice from what is the dominant narrative. God is literally Protestor in Chief concerning our actions and attitudes that violate divine love, truth, and justice. God summons prophetic protestors to proclaim God’s demand that we live according to divine love, truth, and justice and protest our failure and refusal to do so.
And in repentance, we join God in protesting our transgressions and derelictions. We not only agree with God that our transgressions and derelictions are wrong and harmful. We agree to turn back toward God in repentance to protest our sinfulness with God, and in repentance turn away from that sinfulness toward God. With God’s help we become protestors of our ways. We not only agree with God that our ways require prophetic protest. In repentance we become God’s people of protest, prophetic and subversive agents of divine love, truth, and justice. We never become repentant people without somehow becoming prophetic people about God’s love, truth, and righteousness (justice).
Thus, the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and the people who followed Jesus were prophetic subversives of repentance. They were markedly and intentionally inspired to view life and living from the radically different perspective of divine love, truth, and justice. That inspiration caused Moses to confront Egyptian unjust treatment of Hebrew workers. Nathan was inspired to protest to David about misusing personal and political power in his relationships with Bathsheba and Uriah. Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were inspired to protest the ways that power was abused to oppress widows, children, immigrants, workers, the weak, and people who were poor. Jesus was inspired by the Holy Spirit to protest the ways power was abused by religious authorities to oppress rather than to liberate, to rupture fellowship rather than nurture reconciliation, and to benefit the wealthy while disregarding the plight of suffering people.
Baptist views about repentance and injustice
Baptists have always viewed repentance as an inseparable aspect of the grace of God leading to salvation. We speak about repentance as a change of heart inspired by the Holy Spirit and conviction that our sin offends God and violates the conditions by which we are in right relationship with God and others. As far as I can tell, Baptists have held this view across the centuries and everywhere Baptists have created fellowships of believers in the gospel of Jesus.
Yet in doing so, Baptists have stressed repentance as an aspect of personal piety, not an ethical imperative for doing justice. We speak, write, preach, and sing about repentance as part of one’s personal relationship with God. But we rarely speak of repentance as necessary for healing broken relationships between people who abuse power and others victimized by abuses of power. This pietistic concept of repentance, however sincerely it may be held and practiced, does not square with the way repentance is presented in Scripture.
In other words, there is a marked disconnect between the Biblical approach to repentance and the way most Christian bodies, including Baptist denominations and fellowships, have understood and practiced repentance. The Hebrew writings and the New Testament gospels demonstrate that repentance always requires acts of restitution and restoration that nurture reconciliation and reunion.
In Torah, the sin offering was presented to atone for sin based on acknowledgement of guilt. Meanwhile, the trespass offering was presented to atone for sin based on acknowledgement of injury. The trespass offering ritual in Torah reminds us that sin against others always involves more than personal guilt. Sin also causes damage, harm, and injury to relationships with others. That damage, harm, and injury is not atoned for without voluntary and intentional conduct to repair what has been harmed, damaged, or injured. We never repair the harm, damage, injury or undo the oppression of sin against others by merely making an apology.
Acknowledging guilt is important. But acknowledging guilt does not restore what has been wrongfully taken. Acknowledging guilt does not rebuild what has been destroyed. Acknowledging guilt does not heal what has been wounded. Doing those things requires more than confessing guilt. The work of healing what has been wounded, righting what has been wronged, and restoring what has been stolen or destroyed requires doing justice and the ethics of restitution, reparation, restoration, and reconciliation. Until we do these things we have not engaged in Biblical repentance, no matter what else we may have accomplished.
Baptists have emphasized the need to acknowledge guilt and remorse concerning sin, but we have consistently shown less enthusiasm about acknowledging the way sin injures, harms, and oppresses others. We often speak of the need for confession but resist—and some may even say resent!—the Biblical mandate for restitution, reparation, and restoration that are the foundation for reconciliation, meaning restoration of community.
Allow me to refer to a famous example from recent memory, 1995 (twenty years ago). During the 150th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention messengers in Atlanta, Georgia adopted an eloquent resolution on racial reconciliation. The resolution admits that slavery played a role in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. It admits that Southern Baptists “defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery.” The resolution also admits that , Southern Baptists “… later… failed, in many cases to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans.”
The resolution goes on to admit that racism “has led to discrimination, oppression, injustice, and violence … throughout the history of our nation.” The resolution laments that racism and that “historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest… has separated us from our African-American brothers and sisters.” Thus, the resolution resolves to apologize to “all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (citing Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (citing Leviticus 4:27).
I do not question the sincerity of the messengers in Atlanta who adopted that eloquent expression of collective guilt and remorse for racism, slavery, discrimination, and other oppression related to racism toward African-Americans. Yet, it is striking that the messengers resolved to “ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake (emphasis added).” The resolution is conspicuously, and I might add suspiciously, silent about healing the damage, injury, and harm suffered by African Americans because of more than 250 years of slavery, another century of legalized segregation, and continued systemic practices and policies that are the legacy of that tragic history.
Respectfully, let us contrast that resolution with an experience from the life of Jesus that South African theologian Allan Aubrey Boesak addressed in the book titled Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, which Boesak co-authored with Curtiss Paul DeYoung (Orbis Books, 2012). Allan Boesak draws on the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9), the chief tax collector who lived in Jericho and was both extremely rich and hated because he superintended an oppressive tax collection regime.
Zacchaeus not only received a stipend from the Roman authorities for collecting taxes. He took a percentage of whatever his agents collected. If tax collectors in general were hated by the people, Zacchaeus, as chief tax collector, was hated most of all. Allan Boesak remarks that Zacchaeus chose a tree perch for a chance to see Jesus not merely because he was short in stature, but because being in a tree was the safest spot for him given how much he was hated and alienated from the people that his tax collection regime oppressed for the Roman government.
As we know, Jesus invited himself to dinner at the home of Zacchaeus, that notoriously oppressive and wealthy man. We have no transcript of their dinner conversation, but whatever transpired between Jesus and Zacchaeus inspired the chief tax collector to divest himself of half his wealth and add that “if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). Boesak points to Zacchaeus as instructive about ten things that are required to make repentance and reconciliation genuine, workable, and sustainable.
First, Zacchaeus acknowledged his personal complicity in and benefit from a system of oppressing others. Boesak writes that Zacchaeus did not “try and defend himself by arguing that he had to make a living, that this was merely his job, or that he had a family to look after. He knew that he unjustly benefited from oppression and suffering.”
Second, reconciliation requires both remorse and acknowledging that the victim of oppression has a right to righteous anger. Boesak adds “my victim also has a right to restitution—it has nothing to do with my magnanimity, it is all about justice. It is acknowledging my victim’s pain as a result of what I have done, and making it right with acts of justice.” 
Third, reconciliation is not merely spiritual, but produces restitution—meaning real and tangible gains for victims of oppression. Pledging to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times whatever he had stolen was not a symbolic gesture. It was an act of restitution required in order make repentance result in justice, rather than merely an assuagement of guilt. Restitution is always substantive, never symbolic. According to Boesak, “Without restitution, reconciliation is not possible.” Otherwise, we are proponents of the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer debunked so persuasively in The Cost of Discipleship.
Fourth, “there can be no reconciliation without equality.” By divesting himself of half his wealth and restoring four times whatever he had stolen from what remained Zacchaeus removed himself from the exclusive club of the wealthy in Jericho and became a man of the people. Repentance results in reconciliation when we divest ourselves of unjustly obtained privilege and power.
Fifth, repentance and reconciliation involves more than restoring our broken relationship with God but is also about repairing and restoring broken relationships with others. Zacchaeus didn’t merely make a private confession to Jesus that he was wrong. He demonstrated his genuine remorse and conversion by making a public commitment to restitution because he recognized that was necessary to accomplish justice.
Sixth, Zacchaeus didn’t treat his sin as between himself and God. Unlike David, who said at Psalm 51:4 “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” thereby limiting his notion of repentance to a personal relationship with God while expressing no concern for the impact of his sin on Bathsheba and Uriah, Zacchaeus made a public expression of remorse and shame backed by his commitment to restitution and restoration to people harmed by his sin. 
Seventh, Boesak points out that when reconciliation (which is the end result of repentance) involves “uncovering the sin, showing remorse, making restitution, and restoring relationships with deeds of compassionate justice, then, and only then, is reconciliation complete, right, sustainable, and radical, because it becomes transformational. That is its salvific power.” We are not called to repentance in order to merely experience relief from guilt. The divine imperative of repentance works to transform us from self-worshipping beings into God-glorifying agents of love, truth, and justice.
Eighth, genuine reconciliation not only results in personal salvation but “brings salvation for Zacchaeus and his house.” Because of the commitment to repentance and restitution that Zacchaeus demonstrated by divesting himself of half his wealth (wealth derived because Zacchaeus benefited from systemic oppression), Zacchaeus’ household, meaning his entire circle of intimate family relationships, was “released from the generational curse of guilt and shame that comes with exploitative, systematic relationships.”
Ninth, Boesak contends that repentance and reconciliation for Zacchaeus as a result of the experience with Jesus impelled Zacchaeus to confront his life of oppression and self-aggrandizement as a functionary of Roman imperialism and convert to a value system focused on divine justice rather than imperial dictates and personal perks. As Boesak puts it, “Zacchaeus switched sides.” I think this is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he spoke of the need to embrace what he called “a radical revolution of values” in the sermon King delivered at Riverside Church to announce his opposition to the U.S. war in Southeast Asia on April 4, 1967. Repentance is more than personal salvation, privilege, and relief from guilt. It involves changing sides and joining God in creating what King and Howard Thurman before him called “the Beloved Community.”
Tenth, and finally, Boesak affirms that reconciliation—which requires repentance—produces a new identity. Repentance changed Zacchaeus from being known as “a chief tax collector” to being “a son of Abraham.” Repentance involves the kind of faith that not only changes how we feel. Repentance changes us intrinsically so that we are always becoming people of divine love, truth, and justice.
Jesus shows us through the encounter with Zacchaeus that Biblical repentance always involves a great deal more than making an apology. Biblical repentance demands action to restore fellowship, heal injuries, and recompense for harms sinners inflict that cause unwarranted suffering to others. Repentance requires that the wrongdoer acknowledge the holy anger of victims about what they have suffered, not insist that victims swallow that anger to spare the beneficiaries of oppression from discomfort and inconvenience.
What is conspicuously and suspiciously missing from the 1995 resolution adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention to apologize for slavery, racism, and discrimination, is any commitment like that shown by Zacchaeus to make restitution to the historical victims of racism, slavery, and discrimination. Instead, the resolution entreats African Americans for forgiveness by affirming that “our own healing is at stake.” No commitment is affirmed, let alone pledged, to do the healing work of justice for people whose ancestors were enslaved, dehumanized, defrauded, terrorized, and marginalized and who continue to suffer from that colossal violation of divine love, truth, and justice.
Respectfully, I contend that the 1995 resolution exposes a fundamental misunderstanding about and misrepresentation of what the gospel of Jesus teaches about repentance and reconciliation. If we are serious about racial reconciliation as followers of the Jesus who encountered Zacchaeus, Baptists and any other followers of Jesus must confront and confess the glaring ethical difference between merely apologizing for historical oppression and correcting the consequences of that oppression through restitution leading to reconciliation.
Repentance, like grace, is costly, not cheap. When Baptists, who profess to believe in the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus, treat repentance as was shown by the 1995 Atlanta resolution concerning racism, slavery, and discrimination, we are merely being apologetic, not repentant.
In making this observation I do not denounce the 1995 resolution as insincere. However sincere it may be, it is clearly a far cry from what Jesus showed repentance to involve through the example of Zacchaeus. According to that example, the litmus test for repentant sincerity is not defined by how conspicuously one apologizes for transgressions and derelictions that oppress others. It is whether our apology is accompanied by actions that heal wounds, confront and eliminate inequality, and honor the righteous anger of the oppressed. Without those things, an apology amounts to mere rhetoric.
Justice is always much more than a rhetorical exercise. Perhaps that is one reason Baptists are not considered prophetic concerning social justice concerns involving racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, militarism, and techno-centrism. For all its eloquent sincerity, the 1995 resolution represents to Baptists and the wider world that the largest body of Baptists considers repentance to mean little more than apologizing for wrongfulness, and doing no more than the apologizer considers convenient.
Last June The Atlantic magazine published a compelling article by Ta-Nehesi Coates that began with this passage found at Deuteronomy 15:12-15.
If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason, I lay this command upon you today.
Coates opened his article, titled “The Case for Reparations,” with that passage. It is remarkable that a journalist of a secular magazine has been more prophetically forthright about the essential relationship between reparations and social justice, using the same Bible Baptists profess to be authoritative for our faith and practice, than has been true for Baptist clergy, laypersons, congregations, denominations, and educational institutions.
Until we are prepared to become more than apologists concerning historical transgressions and derelictions, our appeals about repentance to the rest of the world not only will ring hollow. We will enable the world to embrace a “cheap grace” perspective about repentance and salvation that runs contrary to the entire record of Scripture, including the teachings and example of Jesus.
At best, we will be weak witnesses to the transforming and salvific work of repentance in a world ravaged by racism, sexism, classism, militarism, and techno-centrism. At worse, we will be considered hypocrites. If the people who follow Jesus are unwilling to practice Biblical repentance as displayed by Zacchaeus concerning past and continuing harms, we should not be surprised when the rest of the world refuses to do so and disregards what we say, sing, and preach about the relationship between repentance, salvation, and reconciliation.
In sum, the world needs to see us living as prophetic witnesses who proclaim and incarnate the salvation ethic of repentance. God calls us, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, to embrace the radical, revolutionary, and subversive repentance that Jesus revealed for us through his encounter with Zacchaeus.
But not only is the world waiting for Baptists to confront that ethical imperative as followers of Jesus in our personal, congregational, associational, and wider relationships and witness. God is waiting and hoping that we will live as if we understand what Jesus, the other Hebrew prophets, and the rest of Scripture have revealed about the transforming and reconciling power of repentance for God’s sin-scarred and broken humanity and God’s wounded creation.
 Allen Aubrey Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope? Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).
 Allen Aubrey Boesak and Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2012), p 68.
 Ibid. 68.
 Ibid. 68.
 Ibid. 68.
 Ibid. 69.
 Ibid. 69.
 Ibid. 70.
 Ibid. 71.
 Ibid. 71.
 Ibid. 73.