The main mission of John the Baptist, the hero of our gospel lesson, was to preach repentance, and then to baptize people as a sign of the seriousness of their return to virtue. Jesus came to John for baptism, and this was the occasion for John to point to Jesus as someone greater than himself. Christians since have transformed baptism into a once-for-all initiation rite rather than just a repentance rite. But we do celebrate the Eucharist as a repeatable rite that seals the bond of God with Jesus’ people. A crucial preparation for the Eucharist is a prayer of confession, which we just recited together. Confession is a preliminary step in repentance.
The sharp point of the Baptist’s remarks about repentance in our gospel text is what he says to the scribes and Pharisees, whom, with his customary good humor, he calls a “brood of vipers” and accuses of hypocrisy. He says that they ought to bear the fruit worthy of repentance, and that they don’t. “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Confession of sin is not enough: we have to do something about it and mend our ways. Confession is admitting that we have gone in the wrong direction. Repentance is actually turning around and going the right way.
On this second Sunday of Advent, as we are about to gather around the Lord’s table, we can ask whether we are a repentant people. As a nation we seem not to be peacemakers when we should be, not to care for the poor when that stands in the way of making the rich richer, not to exercise leadership from a position of humility. We seem to be defensive out of fear rather than kindly out of courage, self-assertive rather than loving, simplistic in our thinking rather than realistically complex, and convinced that one culture fits all and is above criticism. I recognize that other people interpret our national situation less gravely, and I hope they are right. But it seems to me that we do not bear the fruits of repenting pride in war, greed, arrogance, fear, national self-assertion over others, stereotyping and lies, and intolerance. Our nation has not turned back to Christian values in these matters, whatever else might justify our policies.
But not all of us favor the national course. Let me say no more about repentance for those who do favor our current national directions: the coalition of those who do is highly diverse, with many motives and differing cultural suppositions among themselves, as well as diverse understandings of the situation. I want to focus rather on what those have to repent who do not favor the national course, among whom I count myself. To be sure, each of us is highly inventive regarding sin, and we all have jillions of things to repent in particular. But my question is reaching for what went wrong among liberal Christians in America who now are so angry, grief-stricken, and depressed because we see our country to have become an aggressor nation when we thought it stood for justice and the protection of the weak, and we see our religion to have been defined publicly by a conservative version with which we share little but common symbols, interpreted very differently.
I have been struggling with this question, and have found a clue in some responses to the sermons I have been preaching recently. Several people have asked me, in one way or another, how they should relate to their conservative evangelical friends and relatives with whom they are in such fundamental and grievous disagreement, people they love despite the disagreements. Of course there is no pat answer to this, but the question itself is revealing. The culture wars in this country have been going on for decades, ever since the resurgence of fundamentalism in President Reagan’s “moral majority.” The theological religious disputes between conservatives and liberals have gone on for almost two centuries. What have we liberals been missing, or not doing, that suddenly it seems like a new problem to relate in friendly Christian fashion to the Evangelical Right?
To be sure, part of it is that we have not been thinking that the Right could co-opt our country and the public face of our Christianity, and it has suddenly done so. This was simply false pride on the part of the religious moderates and liberals. But there is a deeper failure here in liberal Christianity. It has to do with what I call “the paradox of liberal tolerance.” Whereas many outspoken conservative religious thinkers have no qualms about straightforwardly condemning liberal Christianity as unchristian and immoral, liberals have always insisted on tolerance of their opponents. Whereas our conservative sisters and brothers revel in sharp edged issues such as scripture first and last, liberals insist on taking into account every point of view. Whereas religious conservatives most often define morality by what they are against—abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage in the most recent debates--liberals define morality by large values to which they are committed, such as peacemaking, solidarity with the poor, humility, courage in the face of ambiguity, love, cultural diversity, acceptance of complexity, and so forth, all fuzzy values that find specific meaning only in complex application in ambiguous situations. For most liberals, sharp-edged absolute values without particular contexts are ideological fictions good for nothing but verbal warfare.
Three things result from this difference between religious conservatives and liberals. First, liberals tend to respond to conflict by moving to the middle in order to be accommodating, apparently abandoning their own principles. Second, liberals tend not to articulate their own positions for fear of exacerbating conflict. Third, liberals look mushy and spineless whereas the conservatives look like they stand for something, and by standing for something definite they can rally people to their cause.
What we liberals need to repent of, therefore, is the failure to distinguish the practical work of bringing about harmony and Christian reconciliation from the clarion delineation of the essential Christianity to which liberal Christians are committed. The latter, the call to the positive liberal Christian way of life, is the more important of the two, because it is the justification for the reconciliation with other forms of Christianity. Conservative evangelicals tend to view reconciliation and religious harmony as signs of weakness.
The fruit of repentance for liberal Christians, therefore, should be a vigorous statement of the Christian faith and definite programs that put it into practice. This means, I believe, at least seven things:
- First, a fulsome theological elaboration of the great symbols and themes of the Christian belief in creation and redemption in Jesus Christ, without supernaturalism;
- Second, a detailed reading of the Bible, without crippling authoritarianism or literalism, but informed by all we can know about reading the message of texts;
- Third, a clear theology of the Christian community that does not insist that one culture be imposed on all but that articulates the obligations of many cultures living together with the norms of righteousness, piety, faith, hope, and love;
- Fourth, definite and specific programs for influencing public life in ways that operationalize Christian values of peacemaking, solidarity with the poor, humility, the courage to risk love, restraint on power, cultural inclusiveness, complexity of thought, and all the rest;
- Fifth, the development of specific demanding practices of spiritual discernment, formation, and growth that promote sanctification, without tying this to any one culture’s manners;
- Sixth, personal and institutional commitment to the most sophisticated and complex kinds of inquiry by which our world and God might be known, without the reduction of discourse to soundbites;
- And seventh, the rigorous education of Christians in these theological and spiritual habits so that we can be conspicuous witnesses in public life, not embarrassed about the particularities of our faith but eloquent in testimony.
The fruits that distinguish liberal repentance in our time, in short, are clear theology without supernaturalism, biblical understanding without literalism or authoritarianism, church life without cultural imperialism, political life based on Christian values without cultural imperialism, demanding spiritual life without cultural imperialism, complex thinking without authoritarianism, and Christian witness without simplistic parochialism. Only when we repent of accommodation and timidity by pursuing these fruits of repentance with vigor can liberal Christians have the strength to reach out to our evangelical brothers and sisters who otherwise seem to us to have stolen our religion and country.
I invite you to come now to the table of the Lord with the confidence that your Christian convictions belong here. In fact they are needed as fruits of repentance for the failure to be proper witnesses to the faith. At this table you will find people of deep conviction who might disagree with you. At this table you will find people who are seeking their way through confusion and doubt. At this table you will find deeper expressions of your own Christian commitments. But I hope that at this table you will find very few people who don’t care. Most of all, at this table you will find the God who comes to us this Advent and every moment, the God whose coming makes our responses to the issues of life matters of infinite urgency. As John the Baptist said, there is something better than and beyond the baptism of repentance, namely the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit, the fire of love, the Holy Spirit of reconciliation. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, People, to the table.