Is Repentance Communal or Individual in Nature?
October 2, 2020
Rebecca Russo is Executive Director of Campus Climate Initiative at Hillel International. Joe Morrow is Minister for Evangelism at 4th Presbyterian Church in Chicago and Adjunct Faculty at North Park Theological Seminary. They are friends. Rebecca and Joe worked together while staff at IFYC and are engaging in a series of dialogues based on the concept of repentance. Read their first dialogue in this series Is Repentance a Matter of Words or Deed?
Since we last wrote, my family and I celebrated Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and I was reminded of just how difficult repentance is, even on a micro-level. We took our kids to Lake Michigan on Rosh Hashana for the ritual of tashlich, during which we symbolically cast away our sins from the past year by throwing pieces of bread into a body of water. I asked my 6-year old what he wanted to throw away from the past year that he had done wrong, and surprisingly he actually answered me – he said he wanted to throw away not behaving at bedtime. I said I wanted to throw away yelling at them when I’m upset. It was a brief and beautiful moment, and my 3-year old who didn’t quite understand my question said “I want to catch birds” and made me smile. And yet we returned home that evening, and bedtime came, and my 6-year old was once again wild and disrespectful, and I once again yelled at him. We both had the best intentions of starting the year anew, and yet only a few hours in, we repeated our past behaviors. I wanted to share this story with you to acknowledge that repentance is hard and that truly changing our behavior is far more difficult than finding the right words to say. And yet, we keep going. We apologize and mean it. We try to do better, to rewire ourselves to behave differently. And we try to forgive each other, rebuild trust, repair relationships, and find a way to move forward.
When repentance is so difficult for even these small sins, how can we possibly begin to understand what it means for our nation’s most grievous errors? How can we repent for our nation’s systemic anti-black racism, our mistreatment and erasure of Native Americans, our lack of sufficient access to quality education and healthcare, and countless other sins that have plagued our nation for hundreds of years? What does it mean to truly repent and change our behavior in a collective way? I want to share with you a beautiful adaptation of a Jewish confessional prayer that is recited throughout the day on Yom Kippur, this version focused on racial justice. It was written by Yavilah McCoy, a brilliant educator, activist, and spiritual teacher who is a Jewish woman and person of color. The traditional Al Chet (“for the sin”) confessional prayer is written in the plural, as is this adaptation. Each sentence begins with “for the sins, we have committed” and we ask God to forgive us in the plural – “for all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness, and atonement.”
In this adaptation, Yavilah beautifully articulates a shared responsibility for communal repentance and healing. I am struck by her explanation of what it means to her to say this prayer in a plural form: “Saying Al Chet in plural form welcomes my attention to the fact that in seeking truth, reconciliation, and repair in eliminating the sins of racism in Jewish spaces, I stand as one with my people, and my people, and my people, and my people – all of us commonly indicted and commonly responsible for doing what we must, across diverse entry points, to deepen racial equity, grow racial justice and repair the brokenness of our world.” I read this as an affirmation that repentance is both individual and collective. We each come from different entry points, and I believe that we each must reflect on our own areas for growth and improvement, but we stand together with shared responsibility for building a different kind of world together. During a year in which reciting these prayers could feel especially lonely, as we prayed on our own or in small socially distant groups rather than surrounded by hundreds of community members, I found the communal nature of this prayer all the more powerful. It reminded me that even when we may feel alone in our grief, our challenges, our complicity, our need to do better, we are part of a larger collective.
While reciting these collective prayers, I often struggle to make meaning of the sins that seem distant from my reality. Many of the lines we recite reflect acts for which I know I need to make amends – for example, harmful speech, passing judgment, even mistakes committed without our knowledge. But how do I understand the lines I recite for sins I do not think I have personally committed?
The Talmud, a written compilation of Rabbinic Judaism’s oral Torah, teaches us: “Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.” (Bavli Shabbat 54b).
The Talmud helps reframe my perspective on what it means to sin. Even if I have not committed them directly, I am still responsible for the wrongdoings committed in my family, my community, and the world. I am responsible for both my actions and my inaction, for the chances I have failed to take advantage of to protest injustice. I know it is impossible for any person to protest every wrongdoing we observe or hear about, and I often experience compassion fatigue with so many pressing and heartbreaking issues. I know I will never fully live up to the Talmud’s words, but as I recited the the “Al Chet” prayer this Yom Kippur, I was reminded that we are all responsible for one another and that repentance involves taking responsibility for our own actions as well as the systemic injustices that surround us. As Yavilah’s Al Chet prayer adaptation begins, we repent:
“For the sins of silence
For the sins of using the “I voice of individualism when a “We” born of collective accountability was called for.”
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I was moved by your response to the question of repentance at this moment being a matter of words or deeds. Indeed, your thoughts reveal the depth of care that you personally and the Jewish tradition gives to this important subject. I read your dialogue with your sons with a chuckle from the knowledge of scenes that have played out similarly in my own household. As the parents of a precocious 5-year-old, we also struggle with the same feelings of repentance followed by repeated behavior. As the Apostle Paul once said, “I do the very thing I despise.”
However difficult it is to pursue, the path of repentance, requires confronting our own shortcomings, particularly with those we have harmed. As you noted, “we cannot repent for sins against other people by atoning to God. Instead, we must engage with the person we harmed.” This reminds me of a vernacular phrase we use in the Church, called the “Come to Jesus moment” but is also used sporadically across American society. “Come to Jesus” is a bit tongue and cheek, but in short it means coming to a moment of decision. Usually, the moment involves a transformation based on the principle that comes about after confrontation. It harkens back to the days of religious revivals when participants were asked to come forward to and dedicate their lives to Christ as newly baptized Christians.
In my denomination, the communion of churches to which I belong and am held accountable, we recently had two instances of such come to Jesus moments that were occasions for collective repentance. In 2017, two Presbyterian congregations from Greensboro, North Carolina decided to address a painful history they shared. First Presbyterian Church of Greensboro, a now majority white congregation, had original charter members of its community who were enslaved Africans, serving its founding pastor, in the years leading up to the Civil War. Just a few years after the war African American members of the congregation who had been relegated to sitting in the balcony and being second-class members of the congregation decided to form a new community, St. James Presbyterian. That community remains one of the oldest African American Presbyterian congregations in the US. While this was a history that was known locally and occasionally unearthed, it was not publicly acknowledged and addressed. However, in 2017 as First Presbyterian began to study the effects of racism globally and nationally, the issue rose up again. Thus began a deliberate and difficult journey in local truth-telling that led to a joint worship service in which members of First Presbyterian openly repented of the racism that had divided these communities and harmed the Church’s witness. It was a powerful act and I’m honored to know community leaders whose courage allowed it to happen.
What is striking to me about this seemingly rare moment of accountability is that none of the parties involved were the actual perpetrators of the original injustice. None of the white leaders involved personally denied African American congregants unrestricted access to the sanctuary. None of the African American leaders were the original targets of discriminatory behavior. And yet somehow these persons who are generations removed from these actions have tethered themselves to this long-buried story. And thus were willing to give its dormant, but festering wounds the healing warmth of the daylight. What gives them such allegiance to persons and events long past? I often ask friends that wonder about their responsibilities for sins of the distant past whether they have ever accepted a gift from a grandparent or beloved elder in their life? Most nod affirmatively revealing how much they value such inheritances. In response, I remind them that inheritances are often multifaceted. The very DNA we share with our ancestors gives us our eye or hair color, but also a potential predisposition for cancer or other genetically traceable diseases. Sometimes our inheritance is counter to our preferences, but that makes it no less our own.
I remember once being in an interfaith dialogue about Middle Eastern politics when in the midst of a very heated point in the conversation a Rabbi mentioned something offhand that continues to resonate with me. They remarked that in the midst of conflict each party experiences deep loss both personally and communally. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that much of American history is edited and curated to excise any sense of loss. If loss exists it is merely to allow the eventual victory that much sweeter. It’s the classic “started from the bottom now we’re here” story. But what such accounts miss is a sense of the tragic. For Americans as a whole, the tragedy is a very underutilized muscle. It is in tragedy, a realization of profound loss, that we can rescue repentance from a return to an ideal past, that as you remind us, Rebecca, does not ultimately exist. Only when we accept that the lines of the past cannot be redrawn can we do what James Baldwin suggested when he spoke of achieving our country.
I write as the name of Breonna Taylor is added to a disturbingly long list of names now all too well associated with the justice denied them. Their names, I’ve said and recited over these past few years, in an agonizing litany, woven into my prayers both public and private. The tragedy is a reminder that we cannot go back and change the past, that it involves irrevocable loss. However, I have found redemptive possibilities in the form of prayer. I marveled at the version of the Al Chet you shared from Yavillah McCoy for the way in which it turned our gaze inward toward the power invested in each of us to cast aside racism and heal our fragile public. Prayer is the harnessing of the collective conscience and a venue from which creative power can emerge. In the hands of our collective and prayerful repentance is the power to decide what if any names will be added to litanies of injustice or those of righteousness.