Repentance Revisited

by Rebecca Bynum (July 2011)

“Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”- (Matthew 25:40)

One of the most disturbing aspects of observing the general abandonment of religion and morality in our society, is the all too common spectacle of some public figure, who, having behaved in an immoral fashion, must then must go through thoroughly predictable motions, undoubtedly originating in a public relations office somewhere, which requires that person to a) make a public confession of their unseemly acts (and don’t leave out the details), and/or b) to toddle off to some rehab clinic for “therapy,” implying that their moral failings were not actually moral failings at all, but the result of disease, some psychic or physical (usually an ill-defined “genetic”) disorder. Alcoholism, to be sure, contains elements of both: a genetic predisposition coupled with free will action. Alcoholism definitely cannot be said to be purely the result of moral failure, but the alcoholism model has now seemingly been extended to the entire moral realm.

Morality originates in the mind and free will of the actor. It is the act of choosing between levels of value. Illness is the result of some psychological or bodily malfunction and usually has very little to do with free will. These two concepts are opposed and yet modern man tries to reconcile them and make them one. Thus, the rehab visit is taken as an act of contrition, which it is not.

Philandering, for example, is no longer thought to be the result of inattention to civilized self-control, but rather the result of a deep genetically-determined and overwhelming evolutionary need to procreate and to procreate as much and as often as possible. It was the selfish gene, not the selfish man who committed adultery, had sex the hotel maid or flashed young girls by picture phone. If men are genetically impelled to behave like brutes, because they are, in fact, nothing more than brutes, well, who can blame them?

Furthermore, if there is no meaning to life other than what pleasure can be snatched during one’s own brief hour on earth, are we then correct in censuring our best and brightest for seeking after this form of meaning? Aren’t those who continue to insist that marriage be kept as a unique institution between one man and one woman the modern equivalent of the Victorian bluestocking lecturing the flapper? Doesn’t progress demand the continual lowering of moral standards and doesn’t scientific progression promote the abandonment of morality altogether?

Much of the condemnation of Anthony Weiner, for example, comes down to a question of his judgment, rather than the conduct itself even though it was undoubtedly demeaning to the office. How long can we continue to engage in moral outrage when the basis for morality, religious belief and belief in the reality of value, has all but disappeared and is now nothing but a pale ghost haunting the twilight of the civilization it once nurtured – a father’s picture on the dresser – both seen and unseen.

As was the case with John Edwards, there are cubicles full of junior attorneys combing through the files for a technicality to indict Weiner with, some use of public facilities or funds in his phone flashing escapades that could constitute breach of office or, even better, an indictable offense. Weiner himself, while embarrassed (at least I hope he is embarrassed), didn’t seem to see how his personal and private behavior should be the subject of public scrutiny let alone grounds for removal from office. Upon his resignation, he characterized the public disclosure of his behavior as a “distraction” that has prevented him from performing his public duty.

I am not entirely unsympathetic with this view. Many a great and good man has had personal moral failings of one sort or another, in fact, most have. It is certainly difficult to believe anyone but the most egotistical would want to run for office these days when a candidate’s life is bound to be picked over in minute and often embarrassing detail. This may begin to explain the general decline in political leadership which has accelerated since the television age began, but part of it may also be explained by the decline into ridicule of old fashioned character building concepts like those of sin and repentance. The modern game of spirituality is played by moving one’s piece straight to the self-forgiveness square. We are our own gods now and are endowed with the divine power to forgive sin. A greater trivialization of sin, and indeed life itself, cannot be imagined.

To sin is to knowingly rebel against the true and the right; to be fully cognizant that an action is wrong and would cause great suffering to others (were it to be revealed) and yet to persist in that action out of purely selfish motives: this is sin. For those who have developed a relationship with the person of God, it is the conscious disloyalty to him and awareness of a break one’s relationship with him that constitutes sin. Naturally, sin is a destroyer of self respect and yet the turning away from sin and the return to righteousness is rare without the sinner experiencing the full effects of the pain and suffering his actions have caused.

Though the concept of repentance may bring to mind a picture of Medieval monks scourging themselves, repentance is actually a much needed and practical response to sin. Marriages and careers may be completely destroyed today and still repentance is off the table. Instead, denial is bolstered by the idea that the selfish action is only the proximate cause of disaster, the ultimate cause was a disease which caused some dysfunction thus removing or downplaying the selfish motives and selfish actions (along with the need to rectify them), from the picture. We are not sufficient to stand, our genes or hormones, or childhood, or diet or something other than our own free will choice, causes us to fall. 

Repentance is a pure act of free will born of the desire to repair relations with God and to bring one’s life back under his auspices. Indeed, it is the mechanism that allows escape from the slavery to lower appetites, which, while thrilling, do not compare to the thrill and comfort of divine love. Like prayer and charity, repentance is most effective when done in private, as part of one’s personal understanding of God’s character and his will. It is part of the process of regaining self-respect, walking back from the brink (or the ashes) of self-destruction. It is not a process that is done in a two week retreat that reinforces the idea that nothing is really anyone’s fault to begin with. The act of repentance is the supreme act of taking responsibility and involves making amends to those who have been wronged.  It is the active turning away from self and toward God; the return to the divine embrace and the act of grateful acceptance of divine forgiveness. Repentance creates profound psychological effects and is the one true elevator of self-esteem because it restores self-honesty.

It certainly causes a great change in the soul, such that if the sin is revisited, extreme anguish is experienced, such as depicted so well by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. In the story, Jean Valjean experienced that “strange phenomenon, and one which was possible only in the situation in which he found himself,--in stealing the money from that child, he had done a thing of which he was no longer capable.” For he had willed in himself to follow the better way (after the old priest had ransomed his soul with the silver candlesticks), and therefore became conscious of the evil of his deed and was disgusted by it. Henceforth, he found himself living on a higher spiritual plane from which vantage point, the reality of sin was clearly visible.

One has the impression that Anthony Weiner is not yet conscious of the evil in his deeds and is still uncomprehending of society’s demand for repentance. But how can we demand repentance where there is no comprehension of the reality of sin? We are quickly moving into a reality where legality and morality are equivalent as they are in Islam. Despite the old maxim that one "cannot legislate morality” there are many, many people who would do just that. My own state of Tennessee just passed an anti-bullying bill that covers any internet posting which “causes emotional distress,” similar to the hate speech laws in effect in Europe. This particular law is unlikely to stand the test of constitutionality, but that won’t prevent more laws of this type being passed which attempt to force people to be civil to one another. There is no end to it once values are perceived to be a figment of the imagination, and there is nothing to live up to. All that is left is to live in avoidance of civil penalties, which is no life at all.

There is no greater indicator that Western culture has lost its way than these attempts to fuse morality and legality, or to substitute the latter for the former. The moral ground is giving way and so legality seems more solid, but that is the way of chaos and destruction. It is the sounding of the death knell of the West.


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