Whatever happened to repentance?
For several thousand years, the advent of disaster has always pushed Christians and Jews toward introspection. Jesus, speaking of a collapsing tower, said, "Unless you repent, you too will all perish." Augustine, commenting on the destruction of Rome 16 centuries ago, wrote, "That you are yet alive is due to God, who spares you that you may be admonished to repent and reform your lives."
American newspapers through the 1830s emphasized the turning to God that typically followed disaster. The Boston Recorder in 1822 covered an earthquake that left "men and women clinging to the ruined walls of their houses," and noted that survivors were repenting and "imploring the Almighty's mercy."
When disaster came through human instruments, leaders and journalists criticized the enemy, but also their own people. Virginia minister Samuel Davies lambasted the "treacherous French and savage Indians" who destroyed a British army in 1755. He also opposed those "who enjoy the blessing of the sun and rain, and the fruits of the earth, and yet go on thoughtless of your divine Benefactor. ... You are practical atheists."
American political leaders were similarly weird, by today's standards. In 1861, confronted by an uncivil war, Abraham Lincoln explained in this manner his call for a national day of fasting: "It is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements."
Lincoln asked that all Americans "confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." He wanted all "to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences."
We haven't heard much talk of that sort recently. Yes, some ministers have pointed a ham-handed finger at selected sins, and maybe those who pretend to know God's will exactly have given repentance a bad name. (It's biblically wrong to say that sin x caused disaster y. We cannot know that.) Maybe we fear that discussion of our own sin will in some way remove the onus from murderering terrorists; it clearly should not.
We can learn a lot from Lincoln, who in 1863 called for a national day of prayer by asserting that all people should "confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow." He then became even more pointed: "We know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. ... We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown; but we have forgotten God."
And Lincoln, a scoffer early in life but driven to his knees by the death of his son and a hundred thousand sons of others, went even further. He proclaimed: "We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God who made us."
Should any self-criticism be put off until later? Lincoln emphasized in 1863 the "assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon." Should something that essential be put off? Don't those who have even lost a husband or child need not only human comfort, but a sense that God is still in control and approachable whenever we turn to him? Don't we all need the assured hope of mercy that Lincoln in 1863 was coming to understand?
We should not accept the twittering critiques of the left, but we should also not suppose that we can win a war against terrorism merely with our own strength. President Bush has done well to emphasize both faith and fighting. Our slogan should be, "Repent and reload."