On Obama and Identificational Repentance image

On Obama and Identificational Repentance

I've always been sceptical about identificational repentance, even though it's in the Bible. It strikes me as fundamentally problematic to apologise for something that you didn't do. The only way this stops being problematic is if, as in Nehemiah 1, you identify the sins of your fathers within yourself. If you do that, then it is genuine repentance: "God, forgive us, for my fathers did X, and I would have done X if given the opportunity." If you don't, then it becomes either a futile exercise in self-loathing ("Plantagenet knights did this nine centuries ago, and since we live on the same island as they did, we're apologising, even though we're probably not related to the Crusaders and you're probably not related to the Seljuqs"), or an extra way of feeling superior ("We apologise to all non-Christians for the terribly horrible ways in which some Christians, who we hasten to add are not at all like us, have treated you").

For the sake of contemporary punch, let’s use Barack Obama as an example of both. Quasi-repentance for the sake of rhetorical point-scoring would look pretty much like his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast: “During the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” As Ross Douthat pointed out in the New York Times, it is very unlikely that Obama is identifying himself, as an African American liberal, with Godfrey de Bouillon, Tomás de Torquemada or George Wallace; on the contrary, this list of Christian failings looks suspiciously like a list of those failings with which modern Republicans could most easily be associated. Admittedly, he was not apologising for these things, merely using them as a way of shaming others away from climbing atop their high horses, but I think the point stands nonetheless. (I leave for the moment the question of what exactly happened during the Crusades; Christianity Today ran a great feature on it, and we can probably all agree that slavery and Jim Crow were inexcusably awful anyway.)

Imagine, however, that he had said this instead. “Let us not get on our high horse. Over the last two decades, in abortion clinics across the world, liberal Christians have committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, idolatry, immorality and even killing has happened in the name of progressive Christianity.” It wouldn’t have been picked up by the same newspapers, and it would have provoked outrage and support in precisely the opposite groups of people. But its humility would have been more authentic than rhetorical. If you want people to get off their high horses about ISIS, you need to get off yours.

I think there’s a lesson in there about identificational repentance. It is meaningful for us to repent of sins with which we ourselves can identify, or imagine ourselves committing in similar circumstances. But it is not meaningful, and sometimes nothing more than rhetorical posturing, to repent of sins committed by our ancestors, while simultaneously rolling our eyes and expressing incredulity that anyone could ever have been so evil. Lamenting is not repenting.

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