“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
“Repentance” has gotten a very bad rap in recent decades. As far as my own experience goes, repentance got utterly ruined for me by the televangelists of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “REPENT! REPENT! REPENT!” They’d yell it at me through my TV screen, their faces all red and blotchy from being so worked up. They acted like they knew something about me that I didn’t, and what they knew was really, really horrible. So horrible they were screaming at me to do something about it.
“REPENT! REPENT! REPENT!”
Maybe those televangelists sincerely believed they were trying to save me. But that’s not at all the message I got from their spittle-spray tirades. The impact they had on me was something more like the Shame Nun on Game of Thrones…
Only worse than that. Much, much worse. If those men were trying to move me toward God, they failed utterly. Few things pushed me away from the possibility of a loving God more effectively than the presence of a screaming televangelist on the TV screen or a street preacher on the west mall of my university yelling at students to repent as they made their way to class.
In the shadow of those decades, the admonition to “repent” has become so viscerally associated with religious abuse and the self-righteous judgment of others that nowadays you almost never hear the word used at all. And when it is it’s mostly as a mockery, or a joke.
But I believe there’s something really valuable about this word that we need to reclaim. Especially now.