Priest and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor considers what “penance” means, not as punishment, but as transformative, healing action:
Repentance is not complete until confession and pardon lead to penance that allows community to be restored. Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu’s insistence on real material transformation … is evidence of his faith in Christ’s incarnation, which shows us how much flesh and blood matter to God. Salvation is not offered to us as some kind of metaphysical prize. It is offered to us in our bodies as God’s manifest power to change human lives. While Jesus may have done the hardest work for us, some of us still long for a way both to engage the consequences of our sin and to have a hand in repairing the damage we have done. We want to participate in our own redemption, instead of sitting … while Jesus does all the work. We want to be agents of God’s grace.
Just for a lark, imagine going to your pastor and confessing your rampant materialism, your devotion to things instead of people, and your isolation from the poor whom Jesus loved. Then imagine being forgiven and given your penance: to select five of your favorite things—including perhaps your Bose radio and your new Coach book bag—and to match them up with five people who you know would turn cartwheels to have them. Then on Saturday, put your lawn mower in your trunk, drive down to that transitional neighborhood where all the old people live and offer to mow lawns for free until dark. Discerning sinners will note that none of this is standard punishment. It is penance, which is not for the purpose of inflicting pain but for the much higher purpose of changing lives by restoring relationships.
Something like that might really get my attention. I might begin to understand that repentance means more than saying “I’m sorry” and that God’s grace requires more of me than singing every verse of “Just As I Am.”
Taylor notes how criminal justice systems can be transformed by asking how harm can be repaired:
Some people in the criminal justice system are beginning to consider this more theological approach to corrections. In the fall of 1999, over 250 church leaders, criminal justice employees, politicians, and service providers gathered … in Washington, D.C. for the first national conference on restorative justice. Criminal justice traditionally asks, “Who did it? What law did he break? How are we going to punish him?” Restorative justice asks, “What harm was done? What is needed to repair the harm? Who is responsible for repairing it?”
Penance is the acceptance of responsibility for repair, and it is one of the most healing things a repentant sinner can do, as well as one of the most painful.… True repentance … promises us reunion with God and one another. It promises us restoration to community, and to all the responsibilities that go along with life in relationship.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000), 93–95.
Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Taylor Wilson, Isha (detail), watercolor and cyanotype. Taylor Wilson, Ruah (detail), print. Izzy Spitz, Chemistry of Self 3 (detail), digital oil pastels. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.
The Spirit provides the grace that allows us to include and transform together.
Story from Our Community:
I am a clergy sexual abuse survivor. In my fight for justice for what happened to me and so many others, I have tried to follow Jesus’ example of nonviolent disruption of abuse of power. Since 1991, I have been a tireless activist, speaking out, writing, and bringing the truth to light. Sacrificing children and families to maintain a secret and abusive culture is perpetuating evil. Giving voice to pain and suffering within the church is essential for all of us to heal, justice to be served, and for us to live with Love as our guide. —Patricia M.