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Repentance: A Missing Value
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Repentance: A Missing Value

Guest Commentary by Douglas Groothuis


    A word is missing from the sordid scandals swirling around us. That word is repentance. In its place we find equivocation, euphemism, damage control, legalese, and endless spin. No one seems to admit guilt anymore; so no one can ever come clean. But one can scramble to preserve power, discredit the accusers, cover one's legal bases, and move on to more important things, thank you.

   The concept of repentance has an ancient and venerable pedigree: it lies at the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition and has been on the lips and hearts of moral reformers from Jeremiah to Martin Luther to Martin Luther Kind. Jesus' first public message echoed and expanded the teaching of his predecessor, John the Baptist, when he proclaimed, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand"!

   Repentance goes beyond surviving public accusations and recognizes an objective and transcendent moral order that one has violated through the spurning of conscience and the misuse of one's will. It recognizes a moral guilt that goes deeper than the discomfort over being exposed. Repentance means turning away from one's wrongdoing, turning toward what is right, embracing goodness, and making right what was wrong--inasmuch as that is in one's power. Repentance hopes for lasting moral reform of the soul; it seeks forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration for those who have been wronged. At the deepest level, it seeks pardon and strength from above in these endeavors of conscience.

   Repentance is not simply a religious concept reserved for a separate spiritual sphere. It is a necessity for moral order in public life because it engages the conscience of our leaders, challenging them never to exchange morality for expediency or to exchange truth for power or prestige. Repentance has nothing to do with repression, stonewalling, and obfuscation; rather, it is an authentic and contrite response to moral misdeeds. Repentance summons us to honesty and integrity of character; it is the exact opposite of hypocrisy. If hypocrisy is vice content to dress up as virtue, repentance is discontentment with vice and the pursuit of virtue The repentant would rather resign amidst a controversy--admitting guilt where it exists--than to preserve oneself at the expense of one's soul and the good of those whom one serves.

   Repentance is not just for "them", those in the hot spotlight of public controversy and scrutiny. It is for all of us. We need to look at the log in our own eye before we see the speck in our neighbor's eye; we need to turn the moral spotlight on ourselves without the incentive of any camera or microphone or special prosecutor. No one is beyond moral transgression or moral improvement --or without need of forgiveness. Those we respect most highly are those who apologize sincerely without manipulation and make good a wrong without pretense. Those we fail to respect are those who cannot blush, who cannot feel or admit guilt, and who respond to accusations by changing the rules or attacking the truth-tellers. I can respect and trust someone who errs and honestly repents; I can never respect one who errs and does everything but repent. However, spin does not go all the way down. There is a moral bedrock--a Moral Law upon which the repentant take their stand and upon which the proud eventually break into pieces.

Douglas Groothuis teaches ethics and philosophy at Denver Seminary (Denver, Colorado, USA). His latest book is The Soul in Cyberspace