Of Parasites and Repentance

You haven’t really been to a third-world country until that third-world country has been to you.  One of my dear friends has been going to Uganda lately in service of this beautiful nonprofit she founded.  Last year, she was away for my birthday in February and hers in July; this year, she got back in time to be part of a day-long string of surprises my creative husband planned in celebration.  She also brought back a little friend, apparently called a “jigger.”  I’ll spare you the details, especially she can now proudly claim she grossed out even the doctor who had to dig the parasite out of her toe.  Truly, I say to you, as one who has been the bearer of similar bugs myself  (mine of the gastrointestinal persuasion), this is a rite of passage of travelers to un- and underdeveloped nations.

Of course, this got me thinking about sin.  In Salvation Means Creation Healed, a book assigned for a pre-autumn intensive course required for all first-year students in my master’s program, Howard Snyder writes that all sin is predation and thus, all sin is parasitic.  Life in community, which some would argue is modeled after the mutual self-giving and co-indwelling life of the Trinity, is symbiotic in a way.  That is, it was designed to be mutually beneficial for all people involved.  As you are loved, so you love; as you seek, so you find; as you give, so you receive, very often in that order: you must started with being loved.  So sin in this model, then, is taking more than your share or what’s not yours, using others for your own gain – in other words, what was intended to be symbiotic and equal has turned to predation and unbalance.

But when we talk about sin, we often consider our own and the efficacy of the cross for what we’ve done wrong.  “How can I be forgiven?” we ask in relation to our wrongs, or “How I can forgive the wrong done to me?” in relation to our transgressors.  When I think of my desire to be forgiven, the words “I’m sorry” most readily come to mind.  And, it seems to me, we have not been taught apologize well either culturally or in the church.  One of the most prominent examples currently is Pastor Driscoll’s recent public apology.  I admit, while I’m grateful that Driscoll has not chosen the road of covering up as so many pastors have done (including my own former ones), I’m on the skeptical side of this one.  My wariness is not primarily for the reasons David Hayward mentions in his blog post “Why Mark Driscoll’s apology inspires some and disappoints others,” though I appreciate his thoughts.  I especially commend Hayward for specifically stating that any “apology” that starts with “I’m sorry you felt…” or similar is not a real apology at all.  Sisters and brothers, may we be spurred to own rather than outsource our responsibility and culpability when we hurt each other.

The main reasons I’m suspicious of Pastor Driscoll’s apology are first, because it fails the same way most apologies fail.  That is, it does not ask what can be done to fix the hurt, it just assumes that his own ideas are enough for healing.  Now, I get that it’s a bit unfeasible to ask “the public” what he can do to make it better, and maybe he did this with the specific people he claims he pursued reconciliation with.  His letter does not report doing any such thing nor any plans to do any such thing.  Second, it to me, has the feel of settling a match.  It’s as if Driscoll thinks he has actually healed anything with his words.  Words are not, as Hayward writes, “half the cure.”  Words are less than half the cure.  “I’m sorry,” even as elaborately as Driscoll writes it, is merely the diagnosis.  If done well – naming specifics, taking responsibility, giving the wronged person space and freedom to respond as they need to rather than manipulating them to assuage personal guilt – an apology at best names the problem for what it is: sin.  It is to say, “My sin is a parasite that needs to be dug out – of you, of me, of the lives that are closely linked with mine.”  Repentance is the only cure.

It remains to be seen whether Driscoll will actually change or whether his apology was a publicity stunt performed in order to improve his PR and keep himself in the spotlight.  I’m open to waiting to see, to giving him time to do what he said he would do, but he needs to know that he has not made that choice easy for me: for one, words are hollow until they are filled in with behavior.  But also, I am a woman who believes that women are people, too.  Driscoll’s misogyny is, as Hayward notes, not one of the things mentioned in the letter of apology.  In fact, quite the opposite: Driscoll’s letter actually contains the phrase: “Today I see that calling as…train leaders (especially men).”  And by “especially,” he clearly means “only” when it comes to pastoral leadership, given his track record.  Sigh.  That might be the main reason I’m sad that Mars Hill is the biggest church in Seattle.

Anyway.  We often talk about repentance in the same individualistic terms as we talk about sin.  We throw around vague phrases like “changing your mind” and “turning around.”  But I would like to suggest one possible – certainly not the only and not an alternative – definition:  Repentance is sticking around for the doctor to dig out the jigger of your sin in someone else’s life (if the situation is appropriate for that; not all are).  This means walking with, preserving connection, waiting through the wailing of brokenness, commitment.  This means, rather than promising a whole bunch of stuff like an eager politician during election year, to speak with your actions, to actually change.

Vows to change have, at least to me, felt empty and distracting when coming from someone who has hurt me.  Promises that accompany apology bother me because very often, the apologizer does not ask what they can do to make it right, he or she comes up with their own ideas, like Driscoll did, rather than expressing an interest in seeing and hearing the wounded person.  Ultimately, healing comes from being seen and seeing change, not hearing about it.  Perhaps this is one thing Jesus meant by, “…Do not swear by heaven or by earth or by any oath.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no.  Anything more comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:36-37).  If you’re truly sorry, you’ll show it not with your speech but with your eyes and ears, hands and feet.


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March 27, 2014