Repentance Politics, Repentance Theology

Like a lot of other folks, excitement has been creeping up on me. We seem to be maybe, finally, oh so slowly going through a sea change on lesbian and gay rights (I’m not so optimistic that transgender folks are included in this). Cultural acceptance—incomplete still, of course—came first. But it seems like political and even religious acceptance may follow on its heels. Maybe.

But something has started to really eat at me, and when Rob Portman (R-Ohio) came out in support of same-sex marriage last week I finally figured out what it was.

When wrong’s been done there’s a critical moment in the transition to making it right. That moment is when the person or institution that’s been calling the shots (aka, those with more power), stops, gets vulnerable, gets real and says “I was so very wrong. And I’m really, really sorry about that.”

The best and most transformative kind of repair only flows from honest and vulnerable confession.

It’s easy to skip over that moment. When I lose patience with my four-year old, or snap at her for something that’s not her fault, how often am I tempted to just move on? It’s good when I regain my composure, rein in my impatience and improve my behavior. But if I don’t first make myself vulnerable and open (which takes humility—admittedly not my favorite posture) by admitting to her I was wrong, our relationship doesn’t get knit back together the way it needs to. Sure, I feel better about getting back to my “nice mom self” and of course she’s better off when I do, but unless I own up to her that I shouldn’t have treated her that way in the first place the dynamic between us doesn’t fundamentally shift. I’m still the one calling all the shots. It’s only my “I was wrong, I’m sorry” that demonstrates my understanding that I don’t actually have the right to treat her however my mood might dictate.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Politicians and religious leaders are not our parents. But when Portman announced that learning his son was gay made him change his views my feelings were mixed, at best. I was glad his son had the courage to come out. I was glad Portman cared about his son enough to re-think his views. I was deeply troubled that he didn’t realize long before it was about his son, that every gay and lesbian person is someone’s child—talk about a dangerous way to do politics.

But, I was most bothered by the fact Portman didn’t say “I’m sorry.” He never admitted that voting for DOMA contributed to a climate of hatred and marginalization. He never owned the fact that his past behavior has and continues to cause deep harm. I hope he did better by his son and found a way to apologize for exposing him to bigotry and rejection for the first twenty years of his life—an exposure that must have taken quite a toll. Just changing your mind is not enough to make things right.

I’m worried that a similar phenomenon may be happening among Christian churches. Churches are changing. I had a conversation last year with a former teacher and respected mentor who works with evangelical college students. He told me that it’s only a matter of time. He sees young evangelicals every day who simply do not accept what their parents and pastors have told them about gay and lesbian people and who are telling their churches they’re wrong. He said these churches will have to start getting it right or they won’t survive into the next generation. It’s only a matter of time.

I believe him. And I’m so glad to hear it.

But my heart grieves at how it will have been too late for so many. And it’s my grief that makes me worry about what happens if we skip the work of repentance. As happy as I will be when it becomes the norm that “the Church” realizes it’s been dead wrong all this time and publicly embraces lgbt people as fully human and fully beloved, if it doesn’t confess it’s prior position as sin and acknowledge how that sin has damaged lives and spirits then that change is going to feel more like charity and inclusion (on heterosexual terms) than justice and repair.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that the gap between being a recipient of charity and a partner in a just relationship is a wide one.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I certainly don’t want to downplay the courage it takes for faith communities to change their minds and the positive impact it can have when they do. Nor do I want to fail to honor the sweat that committed visionaries within and outside the Christian tradition will have put in by the time we get there (sea change it may be but we have a long way to go). But I do want put on the table, long before we actually do get there, at least one of the criteria congregations must have on their tables if they want to true transformation and healing: repentance, an activity that includes an “I’m sorry.”

It’s one thing to be the charitable, kind mom who corrects my behavior when I screw up. It’s a different matter altogether to get down on my knees, look my daughter in the eyes as I apologize and, in so doing, treat her with the respect and justice she deserved all along.

At the end of the day I don’t actually expect the repentance moment from politicians. But I think churches will find confession and repair are already in their theological playbooks. They’re in the index right under “μεταηοια” (“change your mind and direction”—a word Christians usually translate as “repent!”). I just hope they’ll have the courage and openness to go look.

Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

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