Tuesday, March 31, 2015

REPENTANCE, RECONCILIATION, AND BAPTISTS: Re-Imagining and Embracing the Subversive Gospel of Jesus in the 21st Century

©Wendell Griffen, 2015
MARCH 24, 2015

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me,
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.[1]

Dean Williford, learned faculty, faithful staff members, and aspiring students of the learning community known as Logsdon Seminary, reverend clergy and laity, sisters and brothers.

          I dare not open this final submission in the two-part lecture series you have graciously allowed me to present without expressing my gratitude for the invitation you extended and the hospitality you have lavished on me. 

I was born September 23, 1952, and grew up in rural southwest Arkansas.  That history places me in the last generation of black people with firsthand experience of the version of racial apartheid in the United States known as Jim Crow segregation.  My now transcended parents and the other elders who nurtured my faith as I grew up in the Harrison Chapel Baptist Church of Antoine, Arkansas constantly told me and other children of our community that God would open doors and make a way.  They knew they could not spare us from the bitter taste and gnawing wounds of racism.  But they lived with and inspired in us a hope stronger than the oppression that threatened to wound and kill our bodies, enslave our minds, and cripple our spirits.  Your invitation and hospitality confirms that hope.  Thank you for confirming the hope Daddy, Momma, and my childhood elders faithfully affirmed and inspired me to claim as my own.  

          Today I will speak about Repentance, Reconciliation, and Baptists—Re-Imagining and Embracing the Subversive Gospel of Jesus in the 21st Century.  I intend to 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 re-imagining and embracing the gospel of Jesus in this “subversive” way, Baptist followers of Jesus will be inspired and empowered to confront racism, sexism, classism, imperialism, militarism, and techno-centrism.  While I recognize these are prevalent and entrenched causes of oppression today, I will conclude by affirming agreement with South African theologian Allan Aubrey Boesak, my dear friend and brother, and “dare” to “speak of hope.”[2]

          A year to the day before he was assassinated Martin Luther King, a Baptist pastor, publicly defined the war in Vietnam as a civil rights issue on April 4, 1967 in an address titled Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence to a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City.  In doing so, Dr. King uttered the following prescient statement.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. … In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.  … I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.  On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act.  One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.  A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.  With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say:  "This is not just."  It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say:  "This is not just."  … A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war:  "This way of settling differences is not just."  This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. 
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.  There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.[3]

Public reaction to King's message was swift and hostile.  A number of editorial writers attacked him for connecting Vietnam to the civil rights movement.  The New York Times issued an editorial claiming that King had damaged the peace movement as well as the civil rights movement.  Life magazine assailed the speech as "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi."  The Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American publication, charged King with "tragically misleading" black people.  And at the White House, President Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying, "What is that goddamned nigger preacher doing to me?  We gave him the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we gave him the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we gave him the War on Poverty.  What more does he want?"[4] 

          Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee exactly one year after he delivered the speech written by Dr. Vincent Harding, a black historian and trusted friend.  Despite the hostile reaction to the speech, Martin King and Vincent Harding never disavowed it.  But Dr. Harding, who passed away last year, always believed the speech was the reason King was murdered.  “It was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him,” Dr. Harding said in a 2010 interview. “And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that speech. And over the years, that’s been quite a struggle for me.”[5]
Nine years after his death Dr. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by another Baptist from Georgia, President Jimmy Carter.  A federal holiday has been established to honor his birthday.  His statue has been placed in Washington, DC.  Numerous cities and towns have re-named major traffic arteries for him in the United States, and he is revered throughout the world as one of the most prophetic souls of the twentieth century, if not the modern era.  When President Barack Obama took the oath of office to begin his second term, he placed his hand on a Bible that belonged to Dr. King and alluded to him during his inaugural address. 

          Yet the veneration of Dr. King has not included any significant or serious effort by U.S. policymakers, social commentators, and moral leaders—including Baptist clergy, laity, associations, denominations, and educational institutions—to embrace the "radical revolution of values" King called for in A Time to Break Silence.  The "giant triplets" of racism, militarism, and materialism have not been confronted.  The U.S. currently devotes more of its budget on national defense and homeland security than on educating children, fighting disease, feeding the hungry and alleviating poverty. 

          We may never learn the true financial cost of the tragic military misadventure known as the war in Iraq.  As the tenth anniversary of the war in Iraq approached Reuters reported on a study by a team of academicians which tallied the cost of the war at $1.7 trillion, a figure that did not include $490 billion owed to Iraqi war veterans for disability benefits.  The study projected that expenses related to the war in Iraq could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades.[6] 

          At the same time U.S. leaders—including Baptist and other religious leaders—are venerating King's memory they have ignored or rejected his call for the United States to use its wealth and prestige to lead the world in a radical revolution of values that rejects war as the preferred means of resolving differences.  President Barack Obama could not have been guided by the vision of the Baptist preacher whose Bible he used for his second inauguration.  Although President Obama could not persuade U.S. officials and global allies to embrace a military response to Syria the way President George W. Bush did concerning Iraq, U.S. militarism continues to cast an ominous cloud over the world and hinder efforts to address glaring problems at home. 

Jonathan Tran's 2012 essay about the war policies of the Obama administration reminds us that President Obama has articulated what Tran termed "a theology of war."[7]   It is more than sadly ironic that the first African-American to hold the office of President of the United States currently oversees a policy of killing American citizens by using armed drones.  The militarism King criticized is also evident in the virulent response by President Obama and other U.S. leaders to the disclosures by Edward Snowden that the U.S. engaged in wholesale spying on American citizens and others throughout the world—including the leaders of nations considered its allies.  

          Forty-four years after Dr. King was murdered by a gunman the nation witnessed the massacre of twenty children and six adult staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut by a gunman who had already killed his mother and later killed himself.  The militarism that drives U.S. global policy seems to have turned on our own children.  The response to the Sandy Hook massacre has not been, however, to confront the giant of militarism.  Firearm manufacturers and their lobbyists, like defense contractors and their lobbyists, now hold more influence than ever before.  

          Sadly, devotion to corporate profit-making continues to hamstring efforts to make our society and the world safe.  Thus, militarism has joined forces with materialism so much that American schools run the serious risk of becoming fortresses.  We somehow are blind to the stark moral and ethical contradiction of singing Let There Be Peace on Earth while arming school teachers and cheering people who openly brandish handguns. 

          The moral and ethical disconnect between the rhetoric used to venerate Dr. King and the persistence of entrenched racism in American life continues to afflict us.   Policymakers refuse to acknowledge the plain truth that the "law and order," and "war on drugs" mantra used by every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson has actually produced the mass incarceration of millions of people who are disproportionately persons of color.  Thanks to the not always covert racism of “law and order” and “war on drugs” enthusiasts, more black people are politically and socially disenfranchised in the United States in 2015 than were enslaved in 1850, ten years before the Civil War began, a fact Professor Michelle Alexander has forcefully presented in her 2010 book titled The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness.[8]

Oppressive law enforcement policies that gave rise to civil unrest during Dr. King's lifetime still operate against people who are black and brown.  Six years after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder became the first black persons to hold their respective offices, the terrorism of racial profiling is as prevalent today as when Dr. King was assassinated, if not more so.     

Insensitivity to the insidious racism that poisoned the United States when Dr. King was killed has not changed.  Trayvon Martin,[9] Oscar Grant,[10] and Amadou Diallo,[11] like Martin Luther King, Jr., were black men shot to death by people who claimed the moral and legal right to take their lives.   The racism and militarism Dr. King deplored in 1967 were major factors in causing the August 9, 2014 death of Michael Brown, Jr., an 18-year old un-armed black teenager shot to death by Darren Wilson, formerly of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department.  That racism and militarism also accounted for the killing of Eric Garner, who was choked to death on July 23, 2014 by Daniel Pantaleo while other New York Police Department officers pressed their knees on Garner’s torso despite his repeated statement “I can’t breathe!”  Plainly, the United States has not become more informed about or responsive to racial injustice since Dr. King died.  We have simply militarized the injustice in brazen ways.

          We have not confronted or corralled the giant triplets of militarism, materialism, and racism.  Rather, we have added sexism (including homophobia), classism, and techno-centrism to the mix.  The triplets are sextuplets now! 

The painful truth is that political, commercial, and even religious leaders are comfortable bestowing platitudes on Dr. King's life and ministry while actively and deliberately disregarding his warnings and call for repentance.  Our leaders play on (some would say pimp) Dr. King's moral authority for their own benefit at every opportunity.  However, they question the relevancy of his teachings and warnings for our time. 

          Such contradictory behavior amounts to what I have called “re-assassination” of Dr. King.  King’s ministry and message is being re-murdered by drone warfare, NSA surveillance, a militarized law enforcement culture, and our support for regimes that use military force to oppress minority populations in this society and elsewhere in the world (militarism), and by the half-truths and outright falsehoods uttered to defend those actions. 

Dr. King is re-murdered by fiscal policies that promote the corporate interests of investment bankers over the lives and fortunes of workers, homeowners, retirees, and needy people (materialism). 

King's dedication to attack and eliminate the causes of systemic poverty is currently being re-assassinated by policies that widen the glaring income inequality between the super-wealthy and the poor (classism). 

King's righteous indignation against injustice is murdered by proponents of the so-called "prosperity gospel" and those who use religion as a weapon to deny civil rights to people who are homosexuals, poor, immigrants, women, or otherwise vulnerable (racism and sexism). 
King’s call for a radical revolution of values is murdered when we profess to honor his memory while bowing to the techno-centrism responsible for poisoning community aquifers through fracking for natural gas. 

When we honestly assesses the mood and conduct of U.S. leaders and the public at large—including Baptist and other religious leaders—since Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, it becomes clear that we have not chosen to embrace the "radical revolution of values" Dr. King articulated.  We have not weakened the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.  We have nourished, bred, and multiplied them.    Religious leaders such as Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. who have followed Dr. King's model of prophetic criticism and congregational leadership have been rejected and condemned in much the same way President Johnson responded to Dr. King. 
          Dr. King was correct when he observed, "America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values.  There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities…"  Sadly, we seem unable to realize that by rejecting his call to reorder our values and priorities—in other words to engage in the Biblical imperative of repentance—we not only "re-assassinate" King.  By rejecting his values while pretending to venerate King as our greatest prophet we are destroying ourselves and  risk forfeiting any moral authority we claim as agents for peace, justice, and truth in the world.  Sooner or later, those who feed a death wish find a way to destroy themselves. 

Baptists have a moral and ethical obligation to re-imagine and embrace the subversive gospel of Jesus Christ in the prophetic way King did.  Our pastors and Christian educators must lead the way.  Our congregations, associations, state conventions, and other fellowships must lovingly and honestly embrace our calling from God to be prophetic agents of divine love, truth, and justice about the wickedness of racism, sexism, materialism, classism, militarism, and techno-centrism. 

I am periodically moved to re-visit Ezekiel 2:1-7 and be reminded what God has called me to be and do.  I invite you to also ponder our ministry efforts as scholars, students, pastors, denominational leaders from that perspective.

He said to me:  “O mortal, stand up on your feet, and I will speak with you.”  And when he spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.  He said to me, “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.  The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD God.’  Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.  And you, mortal, do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briars and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed by their looks, for they are a rebellious house.  You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house.”

The issue now is whether we will be prophets of God’s love, truth, and justice to the “rebellious house” where racism, sexism, materialism, militarism, classism, and techno-centrism rule with oppressive force.  Are the men and women who answer to the name of Jesus prophets calling “the rebellious house” to repentance?  Are we, like King, pleading with our society and world to embrace “a radical revolution of values” away from what now are giant sextuplets of injustice?  Are we nurturing this prophetic consciousness and determination in congregations, associations, and other Baptist fellowships?  Or are we unwilling to take up the prophetic cross of Jesus Christ because we’re afraid doing so means we must somehow suffer and die? 

We have been sent to a “rebellious house” to be prophets for God, not counselors to or cheerleaders for the principalities and powers responsible for sextuplets of racism, sexism, materialism, militarism, classism, and techno-centrism. 

We are called by God to be prophets to the “rebellious house” of principalities and powers that believe in profit regardless to the cost to the creation or the health and safety of workers and communities.

We called by God to be prophets to the “rebellious house” where capitalism is worshipped above God and the mindset of Walmart is preferred to the Spirit of Jesus.

Yet, prophets are not only God’s voices of holy protest to “the rebellious house.”  Prophets are God’s agents of hope!  To borrow from South African theologian Allan Boesak I now ask if we dare to speak of hope in the face of the principalities and powers responsible for racism, materialism, militarism, sexism, classism, and techno-centrism. 

Yes!  We must dare to speak of Hope even while engaging in prophetic protest about the systemic causes of injustice and suffering because of the gospel of Jesus. 

We must dare to speak of Hope, but only while confronting and suffering, with God, the wounds of racism, materialism, militarism, sexism, classism, and techno-centrism. 

Allan Boesak calls us to dare to speak of Hope, but only if we speak of Anger and Courage, what Saint Augustine of Hippo called the beautiful daughters of Hope.  “Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the same.”[12]

We must dare to speak of Hope and struggle and grieve with God against the principalities and powers responsible for the giant sextuplets.[13] 

We must dare to speak of Hope, but not without prophetically calling our society and the rest of the world to turn from our addiction to violence and war by embracing peace.[14] 

We must dare to speak of Hope, audaciously, despite the fragility of our faith.[15]

We must dare to speak of Hope and dream, to borrow from the words of Nelson Mandela, “that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my country and region, on my continent and in the world, which will not allow that any should be denied their freedom, as we were; that any should be turned into refugees, as we were; that any should be condemned to go hungry, as we were; that any should be stripped of their human dignity, as we were.[16]

We are prophets called by God to confront our “rebellious house” with the moral necessity and ethical imperative of repentance.  But we are not doomsayers.  We are prophets of the gospel of Jesus, a gospel that does not stop with Calvary and Good Friday. 

We are prophets of the gospel of Jesus, a gospel that does not pretend to be blind about evil yet will not flinch when confronting it.  We are prophets of Jesus, the Resurrected One. 

We are prophets of Resurrection Hope!  We are prophets of Resurrection Joy!  We are prophets of the way-making and empire shaking God!  We are prophets of the extravagantly merciful God!  We are prophets of Hope because God loved us, saved us, and called us through the life of Jesus Christ. 

We are prophets of Hope.  Shameless Hope!  Audacious Hope!  Fragile Hope!  Angry Hope!  Courageous Hope!  Wounded Hope!  Dreaming Hope! 

God has called us.  God sends us.  God is counting on us to make a prophetic and hopeful difference in God’s world as followers of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit! 


[1] Daniel Iverson (1890-1977), Spirit of the Living God, African American Heritage Hymnal, #320 (Chicago:  GIA Publications, 2001).
[2] Allan Aubrey Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope?  Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2014). 
[3] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence is among the writings of Dr. King compiled by James Melvin Washington and published under the title A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1986).
[4] For reactions to Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence see http://www.milestonedocuments.com/documents/view/martin-luther-king-jr-beyond-vietnam-a-time-to-break-silence/impact.
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/22/us/vincent-harding-civil-rights-author-and-associate-of-dr-king-dies-at-82.html?_r=0
[6] http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/14/us-iraq-war-anniversary-idUSBRE92D0PG20130314.
[7] JONATHAN TRAN, Obama, War, and Christianity:  The Audacity of Hope and the Violence of Peace (Christian Ethics Today, Spring 2012).
[8] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, (New York: The New Press, 2010).
[9] Trayvon Martin was a seventeen year-old black male who was shot to death by George Zimmerman as Martin was returning to his father's residence from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida the night of February 26, 2012.  Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury on the charge of manslaughter.
[10] Oscar Grant III was fatally shot in the back at point blank range by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle during the early hours of New Year’s Day of 2009 in Oakland, California.  Mehserle was eventually convicted by a jury of involuntary manslaughter, served two years in the Los Angeles County Jail, minus time served.
[11] Amadou Diallo was a twenty-three year old Guinean immigrant who was shot and killed by four New York City Police officers who fired 41 bullets, 19 of which struck Diallo, outside his apartment in the Bronx.  All four police officers were later acquitted of criminal charges related to Diallo's death. 
[12] See Allan Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope?  Chapter 2.
[13] Dare We Speak of Hope? Chapter 3.
[14] Dare We Speak of Hope?  Chapter 4.
[15] Dare We Speak of Hope? Chapter 5.
[16] Dare We Speak of Hope?  Chapter 6.  

REPENTANCE, RECONCILIATION, AND BAPTISTS--A Retrospective and Lessons from Our History

©Wendell Griffen, 2015
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.”[1]

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.”[2] 

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.” [3]

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.”[4]   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.”[5]  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.[6]

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. [7]

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.”[8]  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.”[9]

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.”[10]  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.”[11]  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. 


[1] Allen Aubrey Boesak, Dare We Speak of Hope?  Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2014).
[2] Allen Aubrey Boesak and Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Radical Reconciliation:  Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism, (Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2012), p 68.
[3][3] Ibid. 68.

[4] Ibid. 68.
[5] Ibid. 68.
[6] Ibid. 69.
[7] Ibid. 69.
[8] Ibid. 70.
[9] Ibid. 71.
[10] Ibid. 71.
[11] Ibid. 73.