Filling in the GAPS: Set a New Trajectory for 2021
- Jocelyn Toolie Garner
- Culture and Justice
by Heather Hedlund
I don't know about you, but I was really happy to say goodbye to 2020 and ring in a brand-new year. So many things in 2020 felt off-course, and the new year brings a chance to set a new course, a new trajectory. The next step in our exploration of racial reconciliation is all about changing course.
We've been using the acronym GAPS as a framework for the important elements of racial reconciliation. The G stands for "Go to the person you're in conflict with," and we talked about the importance of having relationships with people of races or ethnicities different from our own. The A stands for "Admit your part of the conflict," and we looked at the importance of telling the truth about our history. The P stands for "Pray," and we've spent a lot of time on this section.
As we enter into the journey of racial reconciliation, our prayers begin with lament – genuine grief over what happened. Then we move to confession – owning up to our part of the brokenness. But as Latasha Morrison writes in Be the Bridge: Pursuing God's Heart for Racial Reconciliation, "Awareness and confession of wrongdoing are vital steps in the reconciliation process. But confession alone isn't enough. True reconciliation requires that we change our behavior, that we set a new trajectory. This change of trajectory, this about-face, is what we call repentance."
Lately, I've been thinking about the word repentance in a new way. I'm a prayer partner for an organization that supports Christian leaders in Russia who are making disciples in their communities, in prisons, in orphanages, and wherever God leads them. Sometimes, they will ask us to pray specifically for a person's salvation, and they often phrase it as praying for the person to "repent." I'll admit that when I see these requests, I find the wording a little jarring, and I've been trying to figure out why it bothers me. I'm more used to expressions like "being saved" or "finding Jesus." But repentance is exactly the call of John the Baptist and Jesus. When Jesus began to preach, he said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17). I think that my unconscious feelings around the word repentance hold negative connotations of sorrow and sadness and shame. But the more I study the concept of repentance, the more I find that it holds the excitement of setting a new course. I love the way this sentiment is expressed in Acts 3:19: "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord." I'm ready for some refreshing!
What does it mean to repent? In 1 Kings 8:46-49, Solomon characterized it as having a change of heart, acknowledging sin, and turning back to God with all your heart and soul. In One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love, John Perkins explains that "repentance begins with a consciousness that something is wrong" and that it is "a commitment to turn from sin to works of obedience." I think my favorite explanation of repentance comes N.T. Wright. In a very short video he explains, "When Jesus told people to repent, he didn't basically mean, in our sense, to have some kind of very sad religious experience. He meant you're going the wrong way. You're going to have to turn around because God is doing a new thing, and if you're going to be part of that new thing, you're going to have to give up the way you've been going." I think maybe this is how Peter felt when Jesus said he would make Peter a fisher of people. Peter set a new course. He left his nets and followed Jesus to be part of a new way of doing things.
John Perkins writes, "Repentance should be evidenced by a change in behavior." But first we need to know what behavior needs to change. In Weep with Me, Mark Vroegop encourages taking a personal inventory and provides a list of sins to consider: Racism, Prejudice, Willful Ignorance, Defensiveness, Pride, and Inaction. For example, under the sin of pride, he explains that it's easy to look back at the past and assume that you would have spoken out or acted against slavery or segregation if you had lived in a different generation. I find myself having those thoughts, yet the more I learn about what's happening in my own time, the more I wonder if I would have been equally oblivious and complacent had I lived in a different era. I am seeking to replace those prideful thoughts with a greater sense of humility. Racism can be replaced by a commitment to viewing every person as an image-bearer of God. Prejudice can be countered by learning to recognize and overcome our unconscious biases. Willful ignorance can be replaced with a commitment to listen and understand the experiences of others. Instead of defensiveness, we can take on a posture of curiosity. As we learn and grow, God will help us move from inaction to action. We will "produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8).
As we make the journey of repentance, God will open our eyes to more and more of the wrongs that have resulted from the injustice of racism. For me, that has come with a desire to right those wrongs. Zacchaeus is a great example of this. When he encountered Jesus, you can see his repentance in his actions. With excitement, he promised to give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times the amount he had gained by cheating. Jesus changed his heart and set him on a whole new trajectory. Next time, we'll look at where repentance might lead us as we explore the S in GAPS – Stay.