Repentance Makes Comeback, with Changes for Times: Many More Seeking Forgiveness

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 12, 1997 | Go to article overview

Repentance Makes Comeback, with Changes for Times: Many More Seeking Forgiveness


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Don't expect sackcloth and ashes in the 1990s.

The age-old practice of repentance to gain forgiveness has new guises and formats. Despite the conventional wisdom that it is no longer needed in contemporary life, the expression of regret may be experiencing a revival of interest.

"One reason the world is more congenial to the idea of forgiveness is that the Manichean battle [of the Cold War] has disappeared," said Kevin Clements, director of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.

"A conciliatory gesture, or some act of contrition, is very important for establishing the trust that has been broken," Mr. Clements said.

One example of public repentance occurred a few days before the November elections, when 100 people gathered in Lafayette Park near the White House for a "solemn assembly." Sponsored by a group called the Capitol Hill Prayer Alert, speakers at the gathering said they aimed to promote "fasting, repentance and prayer for America."

The principle of repentance and forgiveness is one of the hardest things to do, and yet it works time and again, said theologian Cornelius Plantinga, dean of the chapel at Calvin College.

"To repent is to reverse the balance of power, and to put yourself in the hands of your victim," Mr. Plantinga said. "It hurts like sin. Some people would rather go to jail than do it."

Millions of people at Ash Wednesday services today will be reminded their lives have been a trail of wrongs against God and others.

Washington's St. Matthew's Cathedral has seen overflowing attendance of 1,500 at its Ash Wednesday services, said Monsignor W. Ronald Jameson, calling the Mass a "concrete" way for believers to be introspective. "They can do something public, just not out there as a lone ranger," he said.

The Rev. A. Rebecca West will read from Isaiah 58 today before she smudges ash on the foreheads of worshipers at Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ. The text is about men and women of old seeking God's mercy, "to bow down his head and spread sackcloth and ashes under him."

But she will preach the text's real message - that repentance and its accompanying humility will not impress God unless followed by good works and justice.

"I don't see Ash Wednesday for the proud," she said. "You know what you're doing wrong, and you don't have to tell the world about it. You have to do something yourself to get right with God."

If the idea is gaining more public acceptance, Mr. Plantinga and others said, it may be because of tougher talk on accountability, movies such as "Dead Man Walking" in which a hardened killer repents, and a renewed use of the word "shame."

So potent is the act, Mr. Plantinga said, that it might have saved President Richard Nixon early in the Watergate fiasco. "I think his refusal to repent was part of what led to his downfall," he said.

Not only world leaders have pride, however.

"Marketing humility is not an easy task," said Steve Chavis, spokesman for Promise Keepers, which tries to teach men the fine art of repentance and change. "There are precious few examples of images of humility to follow."

The group hopes to gather 1 million men on the Mall, where they will get on their knees to repent to the Almighty - but also to their wives, children and society. …

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