‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’ – Jesus (Matthew 3:8 NRSV)
It could be that sentimentality clouds my judgement, in that I continue to find in the Bible and the Christian tradition useful resources for approaching the challenges of life. This despite the fact that a few years ago I discarded all belief in the supernatural. Even without a deity, a devil, or the countless angels and demons, there is a fundamental framework in Christianity that still seems applicable.
Central to what became very early on the predominant form of the Christian faith is the concept of repentance and renewal. Over the centuries this has been refined, especially in the crucible of the Protestant Reformation, to define salvation as something that comes about through a genuine change of heart, and not through self-improvement efforts. Early American Unitarians rejected the former and embraced the latter, generally affirming ‘salvation through character.’ In my mind, this is simply nonsense.
Consider Corine, a white woman in her 60s who is very active in her local church and who regularly volunteers at the local hospital. Since the time she was a young mother she’s been a Sunday School teacher, teaching children to sing about how Jesus loves the little children, ‘red and yellow, black and white.’ After her husband died about a decade ago she also began helping out at the hospital, trying to bring a little cheer to people facing illness and injury. It would all be very noble, were it not for the fact that she is bitterly opposed to interracial relationships and believes that ‘Mexicans’ and other foreigners have no business in the United States.
Not long ago, Corine encountered a dark-skinned man in the room of a sweet, blonde woman who had just given birth. Startled, she rushed to get security, and in her frenzy she let slip a few racial epithets. It turned out that the man in the room was the young woman’s husband, someone she’d met in Brazil where her missionary parents had raised her. Patients and staff alike had heard the ugly things she said, and the dye was cast. Corine was shown the door and asked not to return to volunteer at the hospital any longer. She was bitterly convinced that her opinion of immigrants was right, as one had cost her a beloved service opportunity. It made her furious that all her good work at the hospital hadn’t been taken into account.
Then there’s Jason, a man who was raised to believe that real men watch sports, never cry, and take pride in their sexual prowess with women. He considered gays to be a plague on society, a threat to children in general and boys in particular, and made his opinion on the matter well known. After all, look at all the boys those homosexual priests had raped in the Roman Catholic Church, right?
A new head of marketing started working at the company where Jason had been employed for several years. Andy was about Jason’s age and very athletic. Aside from that he was a craft beer hobbyist, and that scored him quite a few bonus points with Jason. It wasn’t until he and a couple of other co-workers were over at Andy’s house to try a new brew after work that he discovered that Andy was married…to a man.
Jason excused himself early, claiming an upset stomach, and went home angry and confused. The more he thought about it, though, the more he realized that his notions of what gay people are like were based on ugly old stereotypes. It took a few weeks of research and introspection, but eventually Jason set aside his bigoted attitude.
Corine worked and worked at doing good things, and yet her heart was unchanged. Jason did nothing outwardly, but experienced a profound change that transformed his way of thinking and dealing with others. It should be clear at this point that I’m affirming the essential notion of Christianity that real change takes place through humility and repentance, resulting in a better way of life. A person can do all the good deeds they like, and as long as they hold on to racism, homophobia, misogyny, or something similar, they are in no way improved as a person.
With or without a god or a gospel, true change comes from the heart.