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 offenses, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action."
Our civic vocabulary now is poorer than it was in previous centuries. Some ministers have pointed a ham-handed finger at selected sins. It's biblically wrong to say that sin x caused disaster y. We cannot know that. It's also important to make clear that discussion of our own sin in no way removes the onus from murderers. President Bush is for both faith and fighting, and that is as it should be.
But just as some publications of the left are so introspective in their tilted way that they would give terrorists a license to kill, so some on the right scorn repentance. Joel Belz on page five of this issue apologizes to WORLD readers for some problems of tone in his Sept. 22 column, but he was presenting an orthodox biblical view that should not have brought forth rejoinders such as "contemptible" from J. Bottum of The Weekly Standard. Overkill remarks of that kind suggest that the language of repentance, once spoken by most Americans, is now a foreign tongue.
Was Augustine contemptible? Were American journalists up through the mid-19th century contemptible? Was Lincoln contemptible in 1863 when he 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."
Some critics of recent biblical responses have suggested that it was wrong to talk about a national chastisement immediately after the disaster; waiting a few weeks would have been better. Lincoln, though, 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?
It's sad that not only liberals but some conservatives jumped on those who used Lincolnian language after the Sept. 11 attacks. When conservatives show such cultural illiteracy, what exactly are they trying to conserve? Andree Seu describes well on the preceding page what we now need: neither limp pacifism nor hysterical hawkishness, but realistic, unflinching patriotism. Our slogan should be, "Repent and reload."