Thursday, February 10, 2011

Might penitance help with peace?

On a couple of occasions in Minnesota, I’ve had the privilege of hearing Pastor Jin Kim of The Church of All Nations (  One of his phrases especially caught my attention.

He was decrying denominationalism, and the process of splitting off from other Christian groups because of thinking they are wrong or we are better, thinking and acting as if we have the “best” and sure-to-succeed brand of Christianity. As opposed to this triumphalism, he presented the idea of being what he called “penitently Presbyterian.” Being “penitently Presbyterian,” to him, means recognizing that that is his identity (his people), and that it wouldn’t help the unity of Christians to break off in protest against whatever is wrong in Presbyterianism, to start another “better” or more “pure” church. It means admitting that there are plenty of things wrong with the Presbyterian church (and with Presbyterians), to be repentant, and to seek change for the better. And it means relating well to other Christian denominations.

It strikes me that this attitude can be powerfully applied to just about any group or category that I am part of. Can I, for example, be “penitently Christian” in relation to those of other religions? Recognizing that I am “Christian,” but not relating to others in a way that puts them down, minimizes their humanity, acts as if I (we) have a corner on the truth? (This raises an issue that is a core religious issue, that of truth claims, which I will leave for another time; but in being “penitently Christian,” I mean, for example, that we should not persecute and mistreat others for not being Christian - something which happens far too often when Christians are triumphalist.)

Can I, likewise, be “penitently American” in relation to people of other nationalities? My experience would indicate that people of other nationalities like individual Americans well enough, but very much dislike when we act as if everything American is the best, as if we own the world, as if we can fix (or even understand) everyone’s problems, etc. (i.e., when we are triumphally American). Is it possible to be a different kind of American, aware that I don’t have all the answers (or even know what the problems are), that my country has both good and bad, and that I have a lot to learn from everyone else I encounter?

Those two categories (Christian and American) resonate the most with me, due to my experiences of the past 25-plus years living in the Middle East. But one can easily find other applications (for example, being “penitently male,” in relation to women). And I see a definite connection to the movement from ethnocentrism (seeing my people, my group, as the center and pinnacle, and everyone else as a lesser kind of human being) to ethnorelativism (or ethnosensitivity), experiencing myself / ourselves as one among many, and others as every bit as real and significant as myself / ourselves, and in fact, people (those others) that I can learn and benefit from, if only I will be open.

Nationalism, by the way, is clearly rooted in triumphalism. And if one considers the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (or any other intransigent conflict between different peoples), one always finds a stronghold of national, ethnic, and/or religious triumphalism (again, this reflects the “defense” or “polarization” stage of Bennett’s DMIS). For peacemaking (which requires healthy coexistence and interconnection based on mutual respect as human beings), being “penitent” is essential for all parties.

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