Repentance, Insurance, and What I think is wrong with President Obama’s approach to the BP Oil Spill

I tend to think that, as a church, we don’t understand repentance very well. We have the 5 Rs down, but we still have the wrong attitude regarding it. It is viewed too often as distasteful or as unfortunate, instead of taking on the role that I think it has in the scriptures and in the Gospel. That role being the engine of the Atonement in our lives; the primary means for our becoming like the Father. I think that the reasons that we see repentance primarily in a negative light are, first, that we are ashamed of our sins (and we should be) and, second, we just don’t think repentance is powerful enough. My purpose today is to argue that the second of these reasons is based on unrealistic and unscriptural ideas about what repentance can do.

The comparison between insurance and repentance is a problematic one, but I’m going to make it anyway. I’m going to have to limit it, though. Insurance is, of course, the pooling of resources by a large group in order to better manage risk for the group (and to make a bit of money for the managers of the pool). More relevant than the reality of what insurance is, in my opinion, is the feeling that insurance gives us. It gives us a feeling of security, the feeling that if things go horribly wrong, they can be repaired. If your house burns down, you can build or buy a new one. If your car is wrecked, you can have it replaced. That which is broken, shall be fixed; that which is lost, shall be restored.

We have a tendency to view repentance in this manner. I’m not certain exactly how this came to be, but I’m going to lay the blame on a couple of scriptural passages that we may be misreading. The first is from Isaiah chapter 1.

16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land:
20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

The problem here is, I think, a tendency to emphasize verse 18 to the detriment of the rest of the passage. For the most part, our traditional understanding relies on the idea that our sins were white to begin with and that repentance restores them (and us) to a pre-Fall status. As if, whenever we repent, we are thrust back into the pre-mortal existence or, more likely, returned to our childhood. But though we would like to be as children, we are not children. The purpose and the thrust of repentance is not, nor has it ever been, to return us to the innocence prior to our fall. Life, the test, would truly be wasted time, misery, and pain if that were so. We repent to become, not to restore.

I’ll return to this passage, but, before I do, I want to spend some time on another passage that I think confuses the issue. In 1st Nephi 7, Nephi’s brothers and the sons of Ishmael rebel in the wilderness. They tie Nephi to a tree and plan to leave him there, to be eaten by wild animals. Eventually, they are convinced that they are behaving badly and the following takes place:

20 And it came to pass that they were sorrowful, because of their wickedness, insomuch that they did bow down before me, and did plead with me that I would forgive them of the thing that they had done against me.
21 And it came to pass that I did frankly forgive them all that they had done, and I did exhort them that they would pray unto the Lord their God for forgiveness. And it came to pass that they did so. And after they had done praying unto the Lord we did again travel on our journey towards the tent of our father.

This passage can be read as saying that the primary purpose of repentance is to achieve forgiveness. But this is a misreading. As part of repentance we can seek forgiveness, but forgiveness isn’t guaranteed (at least, not from anyone but God). Repentance may put us in a place where we have no desire to sin, but such is always necessarily a temporary state (or else, why are we here?). Certainly, the sincere repentance of Nephi’s brethren here did not prevent them from committing the same sins (over and over again). Should we assume that Nephi was mistaken about their sincerity (remember that he is writing this knowing that they will betray him and his father again and again later) or is something else going on?

One last quote to make my point. Note that I don’t consider the writings of President Obama (or his speechwriters) scripture. The following is an excerpt from his recent Oval Office address regarding the response to the BP oil spill:

You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy. I’ve talked to shrimpers and fishermen who don’t know how they’re going to support their families this year. I’ve seen empty docks and restaurants with fewer customers, even in areas where the beaches are not yet affected.

I’ve talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists might start coming back. The sadness and the anger they feel is not just about the money they’ve lost; it’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.

I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.

And this fund will not be controlled by BP. In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.

Beyond compensating the people of the Gulf in the short term, it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region. The oil spill represents just the latest blow to a place that’s already suffered multiple economic disasters and decades of environmental degradation that has led to disappearing wetlands and habitats.

The problem with this portion of the speech is that, try as I might, I don’t believe the President. Sure, he might have the power to strongarm BP (and has already done so). Certainly, the Gulf Coast, never particularly economically privileged, has had a bad 5 years. But it is this line that invokes my disbelief, “I refuse to let that happen.” How? Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil have spilled into the Gulf in a manner that will alter the environment of the gulf, the marshes, the islands, the deltas, and the beaches for decades. People are going to lose their traditional way of life, because the world in which that life took place is not around any more. There will be (and should be) more regulation of off-shore oil drilling. There will be (and should be) a strong push to wean ourselves from fossil fuels (both of which are addressed in this same speech). But there simply is no way, no matter how much money we get from BP or spend ourselves, that the gulf coast will be unaltered or restored to “its unique beauty and bounty.” Or, rather, there is nothing humanly possible that can restore it. Of course, we should clean up what we can and we should do all that we can to restore the environment in that area, but promising people their “way of life” and declaring that it will be returned to its paradisaical glory is hubristic and impossible.

That said, I understand the impulse. The $20 billion from BP is supposed to be insurance and that is supposed to provide what insurance does: assurance. Forceful rhetoric is meant to assure (like that money does) that action will be taken and that determined effort will be applied to the problem until it is resolved. But resolution and restoration are two different things and clarity prevents unrealistic expectations. As with our individual falls and our individual repentance, this is an opportunity to become something better and should be treated as such, rather than a perpetual recycling of the status quo (which is why I like the rest of the speech much more than that passage).

Let’s run back to the Isaiah passage. Reading verse 18 in isolation, one might be tempted to assume that we were white to begin with. But reading verses 16 and 17 indicates that we were not. The command to cease from evil would tend to show that we were already somewhat pink (at least). Verses 16 and 17 ask us to change our behavior and become more like God. The promise in verse 18 is not that we will become what we were, but that we will become what we ought to be, which will be different. As we strive to fulfill the commandments, God promises that he will make us someone who is more capable of keeping the commandments (see Ether 12:27). Repentance is the means whereby God changes us, sin the means whereby we become sufficiently humble to seek that change.

However, neither of these affects only ourselves. Sin and Repentance both affect our environment, change it forever, for good or ill. To deny these changes is to sin again. While God asks us to forgive all, it is a further sin to demand our sins be forgiven by those whom we have wronged. Our bad choices do real damage, damage that we cannot correct merely by returning to our personal innocence. That’s why this notion of sin and repentance (that it is merely about committing and erasing sins) is not just wrongheaded, but instead potentially toxic. The promise of repentance is that, as our bad choices brought about pain, misery, and suffering, our good choices, born of our repentance, can bring about joy, consolation, and wholeness. We have no means to restore broken relationships, much as we can’t restore the dead to life (usually). But we can build new relationships, born of changed hearts that understand they can be broken, because they can be reformed stronger.

Insurance (and President Obama) assure by promising a return to a golden era that may or may not have ever existed. Repentance, properly understood and pursued, promises the creation of a new golden you, over time and in this flawed world, capable of suffering for and from the sins of the world, but more capable of emulating the pure love of Christ and providing light thereby. I suggest that we should, personally and institutionally, look forward to that perfect day, rather than imagining how the film of our past life will look at our judgment. Repent, become good, and leave the rest to God; that’s my testimony today.

Comments

  1. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    My new favorite OT forgiveness scripture is from Ezekiel 18:

    21 But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
    22 All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.
    23 Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

    Transforming back from crimson to pure white does have its appeal, but this passage is more sensitive to the progression element of our lives, and not just hitting the reset button.

  2. My take-away from that passage of Ezekiel is that repentance = righteousness (as opposed to thinking of repentance as a return to righteousness).

  3. Chris H. says:

    “Repentance, properly understood and pursued, promises the creation of a new golden you, over time and in this flawed world, capable of suffering for and from the sins of the world, but more capable of emulating the pure love of Christ and providing light thereby.”

    John,

    I think that Lincoln uses the correct idea of repentance in both the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address.

  4. John,

    But there simply is no way, no matter how much money we get from BP or spend ourselves, that the gulf coast will be unaltered or restored to “its unique beauty and bounty.”

    What would you have Obama say to the residents of the Gulf? Tough luck, your neighborhood will be a crap-hole for the remainder of your lives?

    That said, I understand the impulse. The $20 billion from BP is supposed to be insurance and that is supposed to provide what insurance does: assurance

    I think the purpose of the $20 billion is to ensure that BP pays up early for the eventual lawsuits to come, so that if BP happens to go bankrupt over this (which is a highly deserved consequence for BP), they’ll still pay for their negligence. The $20 billion is not a cap on the eventual total cost that BP has to pay for its crime.

    I’m a bit troubled by the likening of a corporation to a human being, as if BP, a corporation can “sin” and should be “forgiven.” I realize our Supreme Court may think corporations are just like humans, but I fundamentally reject such a notion. BP deserve no forgiveness because BP is not a living entity. It is an abstract, lifeless corporation, whose employees, once BP fails, will find jobs elsewhere. Furthermore, Americans should really be pissed off at BP. This is the second major incident that has occurred which has had a severe negative consequence for America where BP was at the heart. The first was Iran nationalizing BP’s production back in the 50s. BP then demanded action from the US, which led us to overthrowing a democratically elected president for an oppressive, repressive shah, which led to the Iranian revolution and the current conflict between the two nations. The right thing to do is to prohibit BP from ever doing business in America again.

  5. Very thought-provoking, John.

    I like the Bible Dictionary’s definition of repentance as “change” – at the most fundamental level – and a “fresh view”. It is a changed vision of God, self and the relationship between them.

    I agree that we have focused so intently on what I call “reactive repentance” (looking back and reacting to the bad things we do) that we have ignored totally “proactive repentance” (identifying and eliminating our weaknesses by identifying and acquiring godly characteristics). We teach it, but we fail to teach it as a part of repentance. That leads to repentance being seen exclusively as a negative thing (or, more precisely, something that is activated only from negative stimuli), instead of being a very positive thing (the actual process by which we become perfect – meaning “whole, complete, fully developed”) – and it also ends up forcing most active, sincere members to classify mistakes and minor transgressions as “sin” in order to feel like we are repenting, since we aren’t committing horrible, egregious sins.

    Repentance isn’t confined to the classic steps of repentance. Those steps are necessary for someone who is addicted to a sin in a real and powerful way – but most of us really aren’t addicted to sin in all its manifestations to the point where we need a formal recovery program to tackle repentance. Generally, we simply need to develop the divine characteristic that nullifies the weakness with which we struggle. (meekness, humility or charity, for example, to negate a tendency to lose one’s temper)

    If our view of God and self changes to a parent/child relationship where we are able to become like God by emulating the characteristics of Christ (like those listed in the Sermon on the Mount, for example), that “fresh view” motivates us to do what it takes to change our mortal (fallen) natures into his divine nature – which is the comprehensive definition of repentance I like most. At heart, it’s a process of acquisition and growth and excitement, not a process of elimination and deprivation and misery.

  6. Larry and Brad,
    Good stuff!

    Chris,
    Lincoln = yay!

    Daniel,
    “What would you have Obama say to the residents of the Gulf? Tough luck, your neighborhood will be a crap-hole for the remainder of your lives?”
    Well, I hope he would be a bit more diplomatic than that. Perhaps he could acknowledge that many traditional jobs in the area will be altered, and then point out how they could work in the new environment.

    I don’t think you and I disagree over the purpose of the $20 billion. I also didn’t say any of the things you seem to ascribe to me regarding BP. I have no firm opinion of BP one way or the other. I’d hate to see them go out of business (a lot of people would be out of work) and I think they should be held accountable for whatever culpability they have in the accident (along with all other culpable parties). You’ve extended my metaphor too far.

    Ray,
    I’m in general agreement, but I think that you are drawing a distinction around addiction that may prove to be unhelpful. I also think that, fundamentally, God changes our heart; in other words, I don’t think that we are capable of changing our heart without His intervention. But that is a debatable point.

  7. I wish you hadn’t used insurance as an analogy. In my experience, insurance companies are Satan.

    Also, I disagree with your opening paragraph. But that’s OK, I’ve already figured out I live in a different universe than most of the bloggernacle.

  8. Susan, I was trying to say that comparisons to insurance (or the way insurance makes us feel) aren’t helpful.

    Also, what about the first paragraph is wrong in your experience?

  9. “I don’t think that we are capable of changing our heart without His intervention.”

    I think that depends on how broadly and literally “intervention” is defined.

  10. My sister got married two weeks ago and then my wife’s sister got married just yesterday. I admit that it had been entirely too long since my wife and I had gone to the temple, but while there, I had a sudden burst of insight into the purpose of our mortal probation, which lines up quite well with John’s post here.

    Part of the symbolism of the temple during the Endowment is the overhead lighting. When the session first starts, the lights are at their dimmest. By the end, in the Celestial Room, the lights are the brightest. The lighting increases incrementally during the different stages of the Endowment. The thing that suddenly occurred to me, and has probably been common knowledge to everyone else, is that when Adam and Eve leave the Garden and are cast into The Dark and Dreary World, The Telestial Kingdom, or The World In Which We Now Live, the lighting increases. They were closer to returning to God’s presence when they entered a world of sin and repentance than when they were innocent.

    I have often tried to teach that repentance is a process that brings us closer to God. I had had an inkling of the understanding that this life is a testing period to learn and to grow. But it never hit me so clearly as this past week that sin and repentance–making mistakes and learning to overcome them–are how we learn and grow. I appreciate the idea that repentance doesn’t take us back to the Garden. It takes us forward to a better state of being.

    And, Daniel (#4): You want BP to go bankrupt. Do you realise that the BP stations in America are all franchises, owned and operated by local people in your community? If the company goes bust, so do all those small businesses in your area. Which means many of your neighbours are going to be out of work, which will have an adverse affect on everyone. Do you really believe that all the good people who have the misfortune of distributing gasoline from service stations bearing the name of BP deserve to go out of business because of the mistakes of those in the corporate office? Really?

  11. P deserve no forgiveness because BP is not a living entity. It is an abstract, lifeless corporation, whose employees, once BP fails, will find jobs elsewhere. Furthermore, Americans should really be pissed off at BP.

    How exactly does one maintain anger at an “abstract, lifeless” entity?

  12. Great question Scott. I guess you simplify it by turning a corporation into the same thing as a human being.

  13. I like the insurance analogy because it brings an entirely new construct to the scriptures. Fitting for our time…. no farms, cows, gardens, but insurance. Amway and all that.

    Your comment “The purpose and the thrust of repentance is not, nor has it ever been, to return us to the innocence prior to our fall. ”

    Does anyone argue that? I suppose it revolves around the concept of what you mean by innocence. Our eyes will always “be opened”, whether or not we repent. We’ll never be innocent & ignorant in the child like sense. Although we’ll often be ignorant of many other things, and can have innocence in the sense of being without blemish, to speak.

    I’ve felt absolutely certain, very strongly at a couple points in my life (all involving the temple) that I had a completely clean slate. It wasn’t even of my own pondering, it was just a sudden realization that I felt pure and holy before the lord. I never wanted that feeling to go away, but it did. I think it’s on us to try to keep as much of that as possible.

    I certainly have faith that repentance can do this, I suppose it’s not something I ponder a lot on, I just have faith that it works and move on. I think I might dwell specifically on more things I have to repent of in my daily life and reflect on even the little things I can try to improve.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of the Rs….. Talk about complexity. How about the simply C&S. Confess and Forsake.

  14. Hah… err… C&F
    :)

  15. britt k says:

    when I think of repentance I think of a poem written by a friend with this line “daily a voice demands that we ascend”…that to me is repentance, that ascension, the improvement, becoming more loving…that does invovle changing our behavior and Christ changing our hearts.

    I do think the refusing to let things happen by Obama is laughable, though he was born on the planet krypton…hmmm

  16. birther?

  17. Chris,
    I’d say that if you use “clean slate” as an metaphor for the aftereffects of repentance, you’ve been taught the return to innocence (or the reset button) model at some point.

  18. britt k says:

    Chris, I’m referring to the joke obama mada about himself…not being born in a stable, but being born on the planet krypton. You know that dinner when they make fun of themselves?

    Now I did just give birth, so in that sense, I’m a birther.

  19. 17, I think debating the specifics of the slate, reset, etc. is a bit academic.

    I think it’s enough to say that plenty of people have felt a holy, pure, sanctified, clean slate type feeling. Clean slate is obviously a metaphor using imprecise language to convey a feeling which is almost unsharable and explainable.

    I never said, and I don’t think anyone ever said they were restored to where they were at X time. I suppose you were to weigh “knowledge/experience” on one hand and “sin/cuplability” on the other, by clean slate I’m referring, and I believe EVERYONE is referring to the culpability part. Who suggests knowledge/experience is wiped away?

    A baby has an absolute clean slate in the sense that they have no knowledge/experience and no sin/culpability. As we grow older we gain both. I’d suggest, as we not only repent, but take part in the ordinances of the gospel through priesthood authority those giving the ordinances and power (our worthiness in receiving them) I believe the feeling I’ve had at times is that actual sanctification, or being made holy. But it’s hard to put in words.

  20. Good stuff, John C.

  21. The purpose and the thrust of repentance is not, nor has it ever been, to return us to the innocence prior to our fall. Life, the test, would truly be wasted time, misery, and pain if that were so. We repent to become, not to restore.

    The promise in verse 18 is not that we will become what we were, but that we will become what we ought to be, which will be different.

    Really nice insights, thanks.

  22. Chris,
    I think it is good that you haven’t experienced the notion of the reset button before. I have and I don’t think it is helpful.

  23. it’s about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost.

    I refuse to let that happen.

    His and your paragraphing is wrong. He is affirming that their way of life is not lost. In the overall scheme of things he has the power to make that happen. The first thing is to get BP to carry the economy of the Gulf region until everything is clean again, which the escrow fund will do.

    What do you have against our smart and motivated president. (Way better than Bush who saw Katrina as an opportunity to get rid of the poor, who have really never returned.) The opposition wanted to give BP a pass!! How does that figure?

  24. Great post John. This is an insight into repentance that is truly helpful and important. Ether 12:27 is my favorite scripture, partly because of the reason that you use it for: it shows us that repentance can accomplish a change in us, and that weakness in ourselves is expected and part of the deal we made in coming into this existence.

    Thanks very much for this post. I needed to think about this today, and it made everything seem better.

  25. RW,
    I think it is pretty clear that the reason is because I hate America.

    MCQ,
    Thank you.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,625 other followers