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Rethinking repentance, recognizing the impact of human actions

Manasseh's Sin and Repentance; as in 2 Chronicles 33:1-13
Manasseh’s Sin and Repentance; as in 2 Chronicles 33:1-13

In Luke 13:1-9 we encounter Jesus interacting with a group of people. They had come to tell him about Galileans who were slaughtered at the temple by Pilate. Regrettably, we do not have more details. Were they killed because they were insurrectionists planning a revolt? Were they killed to induce fear in others? We just don’t know. We do observe, however, that Jesus gives an unexpected response. Rather than express outrage toward Pilate for such an act, or express sympathy for those who were killed, he challenged the crowd.

Jesus questioned whether the crowd was suggesting these people were more guilty than others because they had been slaughtered by Pilate. He revealed their thoughts — of comparing and contrasting themselves with others; of assessing and weighing moral guilt vs. moral virtue. He exposed their tendencies toward judging others, and their self righteous arrogance about presuming their moral superiority as compared to those who were killed. And, somewhat surprisingly, Jesus strongly asserted, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

A primary theme of our current liturgical season, Lent, is repentance. Unfortunately, we have come to think of repentance in a narrow way — as experiencing guilt and remorse for our mistakes. This is not what the word meant in the original Greek, and probably not what Jesus meant when he used it in this context. Rather, in the original Greek, the word “repent” meant to go beyond the mind that you have. 

I am reminded of a statement made by Martin Luther King, Jr, in a speech that he gave the night before he was assassinated in 1963. He observed that we had reached a point in human history where it is no longer a choice between violence and non violence. Rather, it is now a choice between non violence and non existence. King was noting that our human way of perceiving, thinking and reacting was centered in violence. An aggressive act is met with a more aggressive response; which is met with a more aggressive response; etc. Parties in conflict often escalate each other, to the point of extreme violence. This has long been the case. But, what was different was the availability of efficient, effective weaponry. In his day, the preoccupation was with the Vietnam War, massive bombings, Agent Orange and nuclear weapons. In our day, 60 years later, the situation has not changed. We continue to respond to violence with violence — often as individuals, and certainly as countries. And, our weaponry has become ever more efficient, effective and ever more available. Now, the preoccupations are with nuclear weapons, precision missiles, unmanned drones, rapid fire military style assault rifles, an easy availability of hand guns, etc.

Consider the statements of Jesus in the original context, and then extrapolated into several modern contexts. “Do you think these Galileans were greater sinners than other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Or those 18 people who were killed when the tower fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than others who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Or, those nearly 3000 people who died in the attacks of Sept. 11 — do you think they were more guilty than their coworkers and neighbors? Of course not! But, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or, the 170,000+ innocent Iraqi civilians, the 45,000 + innocent Afghan civilians, and the 36,000+ innocent Pakistani civilians who have been killed between 2003-2011, all viewed as “collateral damage” of war — do you think they were more guilty than civilians who lived in the US? By no means! But, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Or how about those 32 people who died, and the 17 who were injured in the shootings at Virginia Tech — do you think they were more guilty than the others who were on campus that day? Certainly not! But, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Or how about those six people who died, and 13 who were injured in the shootings in Tucson — do you think they were more guilty than the others who were out and about that day? Absolutely not! But, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Or how about the 12 people who died, and 58 who were injured in the shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. — do you think they were more guilty than the folks in the nearby shopping mall that day? Definitely not! But, if you do not repent, you will perish as they did! Or, what about the 28 people who were gunned down recently in Sandy Hook? Do you think those children and teachers were guilty? Did they deserve what happened to them? By no means! But, I can assure you, unless you repent — unless you go beyond the mind that you have about an eye for an eye, about responding to violence with violence, about using guns and other weapons of destruction to resolve conflicts — you will perish as they have!”

As one reflects on these situations, one gets the clear impression that these tragedies are the result of human actions, human violence that we inflict upon one another. These are not divine actions; they are not divine punishments for sin. While you or I may not be personally responsible for these violent acts, we are part of a species which has engaged in these violent atrocities with each other. We share the same basic human potential for anger and violence. We, as a human race, must move beyond the mind that we have about violence. The only other choice, as Martin Luther King says, is our own non existence. Or, as Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye just leaves the whole world blind.”

May we repent — move beyond the mind that we have — of our own potentials for violence; and support others in doing the same.

About Thomas Altepeter

  Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.

He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.

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