Here’s my column in yesterday’s Greenville News; online access requires a subscription.

Repentance

My last column was about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. If you didn’t read it, I mentioned the various ways we could have prevented the problem over the years, and the way that individuals can’t just blame governement or oil companies, but must share some of the responsibility for it, since we all use petroleum. Unfortunately, I made a mistake. I alleged that the main reason oil platforms were in deep water was so that coastal views wouldn’t be affected. Turns out, while aesthetics have been discussed, the largest reserves seem to be in deeper water. I’m sorry to have taken such a position for doctrinaire reasons, rather than on fact. I am forced to change my mind on that point. Conservatives…sheesh. What can you do with us?

However, the idea of ‘changing my mind,’ made me think about repentance. You see, the ancient Greek word from which we get the concept of repentance was ‘metanoia.’ (How it was transformed into the Latin and French and became ‘repent’ is apparently a bit of a controversy in word histories.) One meaning of ‘metanoia,’ and the one I believe was intended by the New Testament writers, is ‘to change one’s mind.’ Repentance is more than saying ‘sorry.’ Repentance is a new outlook, a turning from an old life to a new one.

Sadly, repentance gets a bad rap. It is typically associated with folks wallowing in guilt and remorse. Too many preachers have helped that idea along. Granted, guilt and remorse have their rightful place; they motivate us to repent. And like it or not, theist or atheist, conservative Christian or free-thinker, we all know that guilt has to exist.

If you don’t believe in guilt, or think it’s just an antiquated bit of manipulation, ask yourself if you would want someone to feel badly if they stole your retirement or inentionally killed your dog. It’s that simple. Repentance, in purely secular terms, means that they are sorry they stole your retirement or poisoned Lassie, that they see why it was wrong, they will strive to make amends and never do the same to you or anyone else; not merely because of emotion (which is fleeting and suppressible) but because of a new outlook. The theology of repentance involves pesky ideas like God and re-birth, which I think are essential to true repentance. But there’s no space for that today.

The best place for repentance to be learned is at home. If I blame my children for something but find, to my embarrassment, that I was wrong, I should repent. That doesn’t mean a mumbled ‘sorry, but you still need to do better.’ It means taking them aside, looking into their eyes, and saying, ‘I’m sorry. I now see that I was wrong and I should not have been angry at you. Please forgive me! Let’s have ice cream.’ (Ice cream, while not necessary to repentance, goes a long way towards forgiveness.)

If I am upset at my dear wife for something, justified or not, and I speak or act in that anger, then I should repent in her presence. And in the presence of the children if they heard me. ‘Attention! Papa was wrong! I see that I was wrong and I promise to do better!’

One of the problems with modern morals and ethics is that adults don’t model them for the young. We talk a good talk about social evils, intolerance and unfairness. We talk about lots of things and we even apologize for our ancestors (who are mostly too dead to repent). But usually, our apologies are stunts. Things we do to avoid immediate consequences, or to polish our public images. Politicians rarely repent, but they are famous for apologies. Media figures almost never ‘change their minds,’ but they can weep a river on Oprah’s couch.

In my work, I see many places where repentance might change the world. It’s one thing to be sorry for being injured while driving drunk; quite another to realize the error and strive to never do it again. It’s nice for an unprofessional physician to say, ‘sorry about that mistake,’ but better if she decides to behave with love and kindness. And ‘sorry’ is an addict’s favorite word, but repentance means the hard work of rehab.

We have sufficient amounts of guilt, and we have too many emotion driven, utilitarian apologies. What we need, at home and in public, is a tidal wave of metanoia, so that ‘changing the mind,’ can continue to change the world.

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