On Repentance and Penance

Eve Tushnet, who is becoming one of my favorite public theologians, reviews a book over at The American Conservative that I would like to read — Mary Mansfield’s 1995 tome The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth Century France. Penance and repentance, and the re-integration of penitent sinners back into the the community of the faithful, is a big deal for me, and it’s something I don’t think Christians (at least in America) know how to take seriously anymore.

Tushnet has this to say about Mansfield’s book:

Mansfield makes vivid the jury-rigged, experimental, even madcap religious world of the 1200s, which brought me comfort here in 2016. She draws out some of the aspects of medieval French religion we have lost: the intense focus on the sins of the rich and middle-class, for example. Confessors quizzed their better-off parishioners closely about usury or abuse of power; one man had to do public penance because the money he gave to the poor on his wedding day was counterfeit, which is three separate things that wouldn’t happen today.

Mansfield depicts many tensions we still struggle to resolve: the sinner’s hunger for anonymity, for example, which conflicts with his longing for reconciliation with the community. Nobody wants to be exposed—but we long to be known, forgiven, accepted as the sinners we are rather than the facades we display in public. There’s a great relief in no longer having to hide.

This longing for exposure and even for humiliation isn’t on Mansfield’s radar. One of the few disappointments of her book is how thoroughly she frames public penance in terms of the longing of others—the righteous, the self-righteous—to see sinners humiliated. She notes that the practices she describes coexisted with entirely voluntary public penances, things you’d do only because you wanted to do them, but she has chosen not to focus on those.

This is a big deal for me because of what happened after my first pastoral internship was ended early — I hugged a parishioner who did not want to be hugged, did not discern that, was not told that, and so when the situation became untenable for both the parishioner and the supervisor, the hammer came down hard and with no warning — did not include any talk of sin, of repentance and penance, and none of forgiveness and redemption (except in a very abstact sense). What followed, from both the church and seminary, was grounded solely and entirely in the language of therapy, health, and well-being.

It pretended not to judge me, as all therapeutic processes pretend, but judge me it did (my candidacy process in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America never recovered), and punish me it did. As C.S. Lewis notes in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, those who have adopted this approach to sin…

… are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Vienese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

What I wanted, and yearned for in the process, was something public, a way that would show I have understood the gravity of my sin and that I broke faith not just with the parishioner I hurt, but also with the Church overseeing my formation and with the God that had called me to ministry. I also wanted to know that there was a way for the church to publicly proclaim that I had been reconciled, welcomed back into the communion of saints, that I had properly acknowledged the gravity of my sin, and had repented fully and faithfully.

Even then, I wanted what Tushnet described as an essential part of Christian community in the 13th century France.

When I wrote earlier this year that the Church has a problem with sin, and thus a problem with forgiveness, I am referring largely to this process that I (and some others I know) went through. I would have preferred public shame and humiliation and a formal church process to what began to happen more than seven years ago — a lengthy process that has left my wife and I unemployed, nearly destitute, and effectively homeless since I graduated from seminary in 2012.

The church couldn’t have punished me better if it had actually set out to.

Protestant confessions have a serious problem with sin and forgiveness. In part, protestantism begins with the confession that God’s forgiveness is unearned — which shattered the medieval system Mansfield describes in her book. This very public reconciliation of repentance and penance was not simply about restoring the sinner to the community of the faithful, it was also about restoring the sinner to communion with God — something specifically rejected by the Protestant reformers. In fact, I’ve met protestants (specifically Lutherans) who get very uneasy with that word penance.

As pietism took hold in the 17th century — a reaction to protestant legalism and an effort to show who really followed Jesus in a Christendom where everyone, or nearly everyone, was Christian simply by birth — this public confession of sin became the entry into the religious community where the striving for perfection (or sinlessness) was the goal. There was no longer an effective or even functional system for repentance, penance, reconciliation, and restoration of penitent sinners because the whole point of pietism was to distinguish real Christians who knew how to behave themselves from the careless, sinful majority of nominal Christians who don’t know their left hands from their right.

In fact, the pietistic response to sinners in the church is to shun them, to exclude them or banish them from the community of the faithful. (Lutherans are very good at shunning.) This may have roots in earlier Christian processes and customs — for example, denying Christian soldiers who killed in war the eucharist for three years so they could do penance and reconcile themselves to God — and it may come with some rules for reconciliation, among protestants those ru les are a lot less formalized and a lot less accountable. Especially to the sinner. And the shunned sinner may never be fully restored, since sinlessness is the precondition for inclusion in the community to begin with.

I never really was.

This practice of shunning sinners, of excluding them from the community of the faithful, also got wound up in notions of of class, and of bourgeois piety and propriety — this is how good citizens live and act too. Shunning had social consequences, and it meant those who were excluded from the community of the faithful were also excluded from the political community and from economic opportunity. Those who were shunned deserved the consequences of shunning — poverty, marginalization, violence at the hands of authority. In this protestant world, deprived of public rituals of repentance and penance (though dissenting and non-conformist churches also arose to allow for those “born again” to claim a place in some kind of society), once a sinner was judged, condemned, and excluded, there could be no restoration.

The Civil Rights Movement, however, confused and muddled how protestants — at least liberal protestants — dealt with shunning and exclusion. Because they began to grasp that people could be shunned, excluded, and marginalized through no fault of their own. They could suffer social death (at least from the standpoint of a good, bourgeois citizen) for no legitimate reason. (Liberalism and Progressivism has always believed in forced or compelled inclusion and participation in the national community.) And so, liberal protestantism embraced inclusion — for political and theological reasons, for both church and the greater society — for those liberal protestants came to judge as unfortunately excluded or marginalized. It was couched in a language of forgiveness, but it wasn’t really forgiving anything. (You cannot “forgive” black people for being black.) Jesus does include those formerly excluded, and we see in Acts in particular an expansion of who is called to be in God’s people (though a careful reading of the Old Testament gives us that as well). This approach at least understands that those excluded have been wounded by their shunning, and frequently come to see themselves as sinners. But it ignores the reality that this kind of liberal inclusion is really about saying to people:

“We were mistaken, and our ancestors were mistaken; you are not sinners, you are beloved children of God. Welcome, please, and join us.”

It means that even as liberal protestant churches speak of welcoming and inclusion, they still do not know what to do with real, live sinners, with people who actually earn their shunning. Because for all its progressivism, liberal protestantism still does not know how to get past that desire and demand for sinlessness that joining (or being born into) the community brings. Liberal protestant churches still expect, on some level, to be the arbiters of bourgeois social norms, what makes someone a good citizen and a worthy participant in community life, and to be a community of visible saints. Sure, there is social work to help the unfortunate (especially victims of their own sin), but such people can never really be restored to the community and never be anything except recipients of its charity and compassion.

Because if they were truly good people who God really loved, they wouldn’t need help.

What I want to see is an acceptance that Christians sin, that sin can and should be confessed (individually, and not just in some generic corporate confession), and then rituals that allow for a public repentance, penance, and acceptance that the sinner has been redeemed and restored. These rituals need not be quick — no tearful “I’m sorry!” followed by a quick “all is forgiven!” Nor do they demand a guaranteed return to one’s previous status or position. They should be rigorous and thorough and above all public. I yearned for such a process, not so much to make amends to the person I hurt (though I have not done that, in part because I was not allowed), but to let everyone know that no one, especially the sinner, has been abandoned.

Whatever humiliations the ELCA and my seminary could have heaped upon me following my misdeeds on my first internship, nothing could have been as awful, as isolating, or as humiliating as the life Jennifer and I have lived for the last four years as mendicant wanderers, utterly dependent on handouts and grace.

Or being told by an ELCA bishop: “We’re done with you.”

My hope is, in the collapse of American Christendom, the church can rediscover these older ways that Tushnet describes in Mansfield’s book, this long process of repentance and penance that can show not just sinner and community, but the world as well, that God is in our midst and has not abandoned us. Not even in our sin. Especially not in our sin. We are loved and wanted and accepted and included and wanted even when we have behaved badly, hurt others, and separated ourselves from love and grace of God and God’s people.

That repentance is work. Restoration is work. Community is work. Living as the people of God is work. That love is work.

Hard work. Grueling work. Neverending work. Essential and necessary work. Holy work.

The work that matters.

3 thoughts on “On Repentance and Penance

  1. Hi Charles.

    Not sure how much Id agree with this. I think penance came in due to serious sins and became public to show that people were truly attempting to change. This then got imported to deal with minor sin as well. Does saying “our fathers” & ” hail marys”, prove we are penitent over minor sins. I doubt it.

    Maybe reading up on monastic penitence or orthodox penitence, may shed further light.
    What I think you & most other Christians miss out on, is being discipled & mentored in the initial years. I think penitence is a state of heart. Discioleship would help us live it out in community.


    • Well, you may be right. But what I did was treated like a major sin by all involved.

  2. I grew up with a grass-roots kind of Protestantism which had plenty of room for repentance. If there was no special ritual for it, it was (I think) because it was assumed that repentance was a daily necessity. Just as we were to pray without ceasing, so also we had to examine our hearts and lives constantly and repent our (sometimes very large) shortcomings. My grandmother lived with us the last 15 years of her life. She was full-time devout, and influenced by pietism, but I never detected any self-righteousness in her. There was more of a sadness that she was powerless herself to make the world better, and could only pray that God would take care of us in our greatest need. She had eight children, of whom my mother was the sixth. The two oldest became alcoholics. The first of these died in his mid-30’s; the other turned his life around near the age of 40, after several attempts and a serious auto accident which left him with a permanent limp. My grandfather was a cantankerous agnostic most of his adult life, probably in rebellion against his tyrannical father (who was self-righteous, and had an awful temper — maybe he sometimes repented of the latter, but I doubt he ever told anyone if so.). He reconciled himself to faith at the end of his life. Whether it was just to comfort his wife or whether it was sincere I don’t know.

    My mother signed us up as members of a very liberal (for the 1950’s) and popular Methodist church in this college town when I was in early grade school. The culture there was pretty much as you describe — cordially inclusive as long as you conceded that they knew what was best for the nation and the community. It included a fair number of upper-crust members. There was actually some pretty good preaching from time to time. Anyone paying attention was bound to become more biblically literate than would be likely in any church today, mainline or evangelical. I liked the faux-gothic design (though the Episcopals did it better in their small but beautiful church a few blocks away), the excellent classical organ along with Wesleyan hymns, and the sense of the orderly maintenance of a traditional lore. But it was also clear that the social function of the church to the members was an assertion not of self-righteousness but of self-worthiness — that here were members in good standing of the civic order, pillars of the civil religion of the nation. There was a disconnect between the casual semi-secular piety of the church and the genuinely humble and passionate faith typical in my family, though it was manifested in different ways and to different degrees. I heard a song sung by Georgia Sea Island singers in the early 60’s: “My God is a rock in the weary land , and a shelter in the time of storm.” I could connect to that song easily on a visceral level missing from the impressive choirs of the liberal church. I think my family (meaning the extended family out to 2nd cousins and beyond) expected that kind of disconnect between institutional church and the deeper faith of heart and home. Church played an important role in maintaining and spreading the word, but these functions were more in the way of props for the living faith which was lived out in everyday life among friends and family (and strangers, too).

    Medieval France was such a different world. Everything was communal there, by necessity. People often spent winters crowded together in the manor homes of the local lords, – sleeping on floors, no privacy at all – especially during the Little Ice Age of the late middle ages. At least that was true in England farther north.

    These are just my random thoughts on the topic. I got about a week behind again in reading your posts, and just caught up last night. I always end up wondering why I didn’t make reading your blog a higher priority.

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