My favorite pop psych carpe diem mental masturbation exercise is imagining what I would do with the time I have left if I only had a year to live. Being “of the cloth,” I fantasize about devoting my few remaining days to delivering desperately needed inoculations to people dying of highly contagious bleed-out diseases in godforsaken banana republics laced with landmines and crawling with the minions of local wackadoo dictators.
But let’s get real. Like most people, I’d probably spend my last days watching Glee reruns and eating Girl Scout cookies by the sleeve.* Given an expiration date, very few of us make an about-face, amend our errant ways, and get any more firmly on the straight and narrow that we’ve ever been. Where genuine repentance is concerned, the last minute isn’t much of a motivator.
In the wake of the latest school-shooting-de la semaine and the inevitable ensuing firestorm about firearms, I’ve read several variations of the following on Facebook: “Guns aren’t the problem. People are the problem.” These gemlike bumper sticker policy statements unleash predictable surges of political and moral controversy and streams of uninformative/uninformed, unkind, and unoriginal responses as people on all sides of the issue weigh in, yet again, on how and why our children are dying in hails of gunfire in their classrooms. Then, just as predictably, those same outraged authors immediately scroll on to click “Like” on the latest videos of a cat in a shark suit riding on a Roomba.**
I try not to engage in exchanges of verbal gunfire on social media, preferring, as I do, to hide behind a Norton security screen and fire random shots into crowds via this blog. But I’ll tell you what I would have posted to Facebook if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked by dogs on skateboards. People are the problem. People have been the problem since Adam and Eve got dressed and escaped Eden. All of us bear the weight of sins we’ve inherited from our ancestors – social sins, sins of inequality, systemic “isms,” and systematic injustice; and we bear within us the sins we ourselves have committed and keep committing. Being human gives human beings a deservedly bad name.
Gun control, mental health treatment, arming teachers, encasing our children in Kevlar; the solutions fly in a frenzy of hand-wringing for about a week after every mass shooting, then we go back to business as usual, acting as if none of this has anything really to do with us until the next barrage of media images showing sobbing teenagers in front of makeshift memorials with stuffed animals and crosses and balloons and handmade signs that say, “We will never forget you.”
Except we do. These days, mass murder seems to be the cost of participating in our free and democratic society. It’s positively routine anymore. And it’s precisely our business-as-usual approach to routine civilian slaughter that makes these catastrophes possible again and again and again.
By itself, all the gun control – or gun stockpiling – in the world will not end events like Columbine, Pulse, Aurora, Las Vegas, Sutherland, Sandy Hook, and Parkland. Because guns – or the lack of them – aren’t the root of this kind of evil. Our society, pathologically permissive of violence, is.
Which brings me to repentance.
Popularly associated with hair shirts, self-flagellation, sackcloth, ashes, and consuming entire sleeves of Girl Scout cookies in a single sitting, repentance is one of the most misused theological concepts in the Christian playbook. The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as “repentance,” literally means “turning around.” Repentance is a course-correction made possible by the understanding that we are not moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the people most interested in repentance – Christians, supposedly – are among those most guilty of failing to do it.
I remember watching professional football games on TV as a kid and seeing a season ticket holder seated behind the goal posts raise a sign during every field goal and extra point that read: “Repent! The end is at hand!”
Despite the personal satisfaction obtained via such broad-spectrum guilt-baiting (not dissimilar, I suspect, from the satisfaction gleaned from posting things on Facebook such as, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”), to my knowledge, no one in the Bible ever said, “Repent, for the end of the world is at hand.” They did say repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
One of the other most misused theological concepts in the Christian playbook is the concept of the kingdom of heaven. Contrary to opinion popular among the “Jesus Loves You and Burns Sinners in Hell” crowd, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven in the Bible, he’s not talking about some heavenly reward for the deceased faithful. He’s talking about a state of grace in this life, on this space-time continuum. He’s talking about something we do in this life, not something we earn our way into in the next.
People who truly repent — who take a fearless moral inventory of their world and then make substantive behavioral changes — actually do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Starting today. Right now. Not after breakfast. Not after death. Repentance, that active course correction, brings the kingdom of heaven to the present moment. That’s what Jesus meant when he prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is done in heaven.” Understood this way, repentance is less a sentiment and more a decision; less a feeling than a course of action.
We are called to repent because the end is NOT at hand. But for those of us who do repent, the kingdom of heaven on earth may be. In any case, keeping on keeping on for American society should not be an option, especially for people of faith. Keeping on keeping on will not usher in the earthly rule of the Prince of Peace. It is, however, successfully managing to make life hell on earth for far, far too many.
* In the interest of full disclosure, I fucking love this one.
© Marian the Seminarian, 2018