Perhaps the greatest tragedy of life in a secularized world is the freedom from failure. The mantra of progress ignores every secular failure as an abiding ill of an earlier age yet to be vanquished. Thus, its every failure is an excuse to double-down on the same insanity that failed the first time. The secular world’s unbridled self-confidence comes at the price of self-awareness. With freedom from failure comes freedom from repentance. We regret nothing. And this is the deepest poverty of soul in our modern world.
This aspect of secularism is dominantly an aspect of American culture. Older, European cultures have a longer history and a more complex self-understanding. A German cannot speak of the glories of his nation and its dreams without a caveat. The monuments of the gas chambers remain and are too evident. There are other cultures whose failures are less grim, less hideous, but the European story must often include long chapters of national failure and disaster.
American culture is unambiguous.
It is difficult for nations to repent. Generally, politicians are not elected on a platform of repentance. National repentance also requires a liturgy, something which has disappeared from the secular consciousness. We are well aware of Thanksgiving Day. However, it was once the case that there were national days of fasting, when the nation expressed sorrow and sought forgiveness.
Orthodoxy begins its Lenten Fast with a service of mutual forgiveness in which each member of the congregation bows or prostrates before others and asks to be forgiven. How well or thoroughly this is observed is unknown to me – I’m always in my own parish on that day. Catholics and a number of others begin Great Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and repentance when everyone is reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But, of course, the culture at large only knows Ash Wednesday as a day after Mardi Gras (and most do not know that Mardi Gras takes its meaning from Ash Wednesday). We remember the parties in the same way we remember Thanksgiving – days of excess.
Repentance is a difficult thing. It requires that we “bear a little shame.” Our failures and mistakes, indeed, our intentional misdeeds are lost in a world of success, and affirmation. We have nurtured a culture that believes the acknowledgment of failure is harmful, damaging to the psyche.
I was born in the early 50’s, in the American South. One side of my family owned slaves back in the day and fought in the Civil War to maintain that system. However, I was not brought up with an acknowledgment of failure, other than the fact that we “lost the war.” My late childhood was surrounded with the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement, when a culture was forced to change against its will, with a lingering bitterness that has yet to dissipate completely. There was “change,” but no repentance.
This is the weakness of progress. Those who now consider themselves the champions of the New South do so in the name of progress. That progress takes place in the face of “those people,” i.e. the enemies of progress. There is no true progress, just the shifting of blame. “They did it. We are not them.” And the new champions remain as impervious to their own failures as those who went before them – whom they now vilify.
If failure is relegated to the past, while the present is defined only in terms of a planned, progressive future, what is lost is the truth of ourselves and a wholeness that can only be found in the fullness of the truth. Sadly, I have watched my culture (and modernity) fail repeatedly throughout the course of my life, with no acknowledgement of that fact.
In the year 390, the Roman Emperor, Theodosius, ordered an army of Gothic troops to punish the city of Thessalonica for a case of willful disobedience. The order resulted in the massacre of 7,000 citizens. Theodosius, a Christian, found himself excommunicated from the Church by St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan (the emperor’s capital at the time). He was only admitted to communion after months of public repentance in which he stood among other notorious sinners asking for prayer. He also agreed that all sentences involving the death penalty should require a 30-day period of waiting, to prevent sudden irruptions of anger. It was the first case in the history of Christianity, in which an Emperor or King bowed before God in repentance. St. Ambrose invoked the example of King David, who did penance for the murder of Uriah the husband of Bathsheba. One of the unintended consequences of the Reformation was to remove such power from the public square. In America, there is no institution that can call the government, or the nation to repentance.
It is said that the average American family moves once every five years. That is also the average length of time an American pastor stays in a position. I often think we not only seek new jobs, but new lives. We move rather than repent. We say that we “make progress” but it is all a lateral move, without depth. The new start becomes a substitute for actual renewal, something that can only come through true repentance.
To repent requires that we “bear a little shame.” Sometimes it means to bear a great shame. Outside of Moscow, there is a small Church in a field. The field was once a “killing field,” a site where prisoners were executed by the NKVD. At least 1000 Orthodox clergy are known to have been slain on the site, as well as at least 20,000 others. The Church is a memorial to those slain – the New Martyrs of the Communist Yoke. In 2007, there was an article in the NY Times about this memorial. In an interview, the chairman of Memorial, an organization committed to cataloging and remembering the victims of terror, made an interesting comment:
“It’s a bit strange that this is a purely Orthodox place, but nothing tragic,” he said. “I don’t really like this. I think this should be multicultural place.
“But it’s better that there be something than nothing. If the state is not ready to help understand the meaning of terror in its history, the role of terror in its history, it’s not so bad that the Orthodox Church took it upon itself.”
To remember things properly also requires repentance. The sins of the past do not belong to strangers – they belong to all of us – for we are no different than those who have gone before. We have not made progress and left them behind. There can be no progress until we return and remember them, and begin the work of repentance that alone heals the human soul.