Growing up in fundamentalism, “Repent!” was the call of many a revival preacher. The skilled ones could conjure up the burning fires of hell with such realism and authority, that I could feel the flames as I sat clutching to the pew. Conditioned to “turn or burn,” I repented at every opportunity given.
All these decades later I recognize the moral bankruptcy and emotional savagery of advancing the concept of “eternal conscious torment” in a literal lake of burning sulphur. And while remaining a person of faith, I now adhere to Bertrand Russell’s insight that, “Religion is based primarily on fear, and fear is the parent of cruelty.”
That said, I’d like to reclaim the word “repent,” and not allow the fuming fundamentalists to tarnish a necessary action. We must repent – all of us – as individuals and as a whole. That is, we must make an elemental, conscious decision to become different than we are. We must experience, by God’s grace, a change of heart, recognizing that life and death are in the balance.
“See, I have set before you life and death,” say the scriptures. And then, sounding more like a heart-broken lover than an angry evangelist, God speaks: “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” This is not a threat of punishment. It is a statement of outcome. It is a warning about the inevitable consequences of our decisions.
Thus, my call to repentance is not an attempt to sell you fire insurance for the great beyond. It is an appeal to turn from the path that is destroying us, and embrace life; for we seem to be deliberately choosing our own deaths and the death of the future.
What is, after all, the end of a society that chooses hatred, estrangement, self-centeredness, and ill-will over healing, restoration, and decency? What becomes of a people who deny or stubbornly ignore the seriousness of the moment – the current pandemic and other epochal challenges – that can no longer be postponed for future generations to solve?
What happens to a nation that purposely creates policies that harm the poor, and by legislation intentionally denies dignity and justice to the marginalized while spending the lion’s share of its wealth on killing machines?
What happens to a country that willfully closes her eyes to the fact that all people “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny; and whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly?” History tells us what happens: The end is written with ashes, ruins, and the sad tales of toppled invincibility.
Carl Jung said, “The difference between a good life and a bad life is how well one walks through the fire.” A good life can also measured by our willingness to put out the fires of our own kindling. A good life is a choice – not to escape a mythical hell – but to turn from the burning pyre we are building right here and now.