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Is Repentance a Matter of Words or Deeds?

A large, racially diverse crowd gathers to protest

Rebecca Russo is Executive Director of Campus Climate Initiative at Hillel International. Joe Morrow is Minister for Evangelism at 4th Presbyterian Church in Chicago and Adjunct Faculty at North Park Theological Seminary. They are friends. Rebecca and Joe worked together while staff at IFYC and are engaging in a series of dialogues based on the concept of repentance. 

Dear Rebecca,

I’m excited to begin this conversation about a topic so dear to both of our faith traditions and so relevant to these turbulent times, when among several challenges, our country is forced to reckon with its persistent racial inequity. When I consider how to apply the idea of repentance to an issue as heavy as systemic racism, I feel immediately perplexed. I desperately want something to be done, but every possibility seems inadequate to the scope of wrongdoing has resulted in almost incalculable hardship. 

Those closest parallels might be the plight of those persons falsely accused of crimes and then freed from their prison sentences years later. Just such a scenario was played out dramatically in Bryan Stevenson’s now well-known book turned film Just Mercy. When Stevenson’s client Walter McMillian walks free of the cell that unjustly entrapped him for six years for a crime he did not commit, setting things right seemed nigh impossible. Is there any apology that could substitute for every summer barbeque he missed or holiday gathering that went on without him? What amount of money could compensate for labor and years lost? Now, in this moment when the cost of violence and abuse of authority has been laid bare for all to witness, what shall count for our repentance: words or deeds?

In the stories of Jesus that ground my own faith tradition, repentance and forgiveness are common themes. Sometimes words make all the difference. After Jesus’ death, one of disciples, Simon Peter, finds himself back at his day job as a fishing laborer unable to let go of the regret he felt for dismissively denying Jesus in his moment of trial. It is then that Jesus appears after his resurrection and confronts Peter. Just as Peter verbally denied Jesus three times, he is thrice given the opportunity to affirm his connection to Jesus. Jesus says “Do you love me?” For which Peter replies, “Yes”. Then Jesus says “Feed my sheep.” The right words, shared with sincerity,  allowed a broken relationship to be restored. In those words were a powerful admission of a wrong done and a bond restored.

But other times in Jesus ministry, words were not enough. When, for instance, he encounters Zacchaeus the tax collector, we find someone eager to welcome Jesus with his words, but observers look on incredulously, unconvinced that Zacchaeus will back up his flattering words with actions. Will he return the wealth he has amassed unjustly at the expense of his neighbors barely eking out a living? Pressed by his dialogue with Jesus, Zacchaeus commits to action by  insisting he will give up half his possessions and repay those he defrauded fourfold. He goes above and beyond by expressing his willingness to repay threefold what he unjustly took away. In response Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.”

So what is the right approach in our current situation when systemic racism has reared its head in shocking and abhorrent ways? Is there some mix of words and deeds that could help us right such a deeply entrenched wrong? And yet, even as I say this, it sounds highly naive to suggest that an eloquently written apology or a hefty bundle of cash will repair such wounds. 

Perhaps repentance as we are in search of is something more than these forms it often takes. One feature the biblical stories I raise have in common is a sense of shared space between victim and victimizer. Jesus both confronts and offers hospitality by drawing together. Words and deeds only begin to matter when we embrace rather than retreat from the shared space where we are called to account. Eager to hear your thoughts!

With Gratitude,


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Dear Joe,

I am grateful to you for inviting me to join you in exploring these questions, and for sharing these powerful reflections from your Christian tradition.  Repentance has been on my mind these past few months as our nation has reckoned in new ways with systemic racism, and as I have reckoned with my own complicity in racial injustice.  The theme of repentance is particularly resonant during this season in the Jewish calendar, leading up to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.  The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuva - the ten days of repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance (teshuva) literally means “return” - we are returning to a path of goodness by repenting. What does it mean to “return” when our national history has been flawed from the outset?  How can we acknowledge a deeply challenged past and present, and repent by looking forward to envision a more equitable future together?  

Jewish tradition sees both words and deeds as key components of repentance - one is not sufficient without the other. Repentance is a process that includes steps such as acknowledging the sin, feeling regret, confession, and changing behavior. Repentance is not considered complete until we are in the same situation again and choose to behave differently. As Maimonides writes in the laws of repentance, “What is complete repentance? He who once more had in it in his power to repeat a violation, but separated himself therefrom, and did not do it because of repentance” (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 2). Words are important, but they are not enough without corresponding action, without truly changing our ways.  

I have always been struck by an important part of Jewish tradition around repentance - we cannot repent for sins against other people by atoning to God. Instead, we must engage with the person we harmed. Repentance involves self-reflection but ultimately is about how we engage in relationship with others, through both genuine words and behavior.  Ideally we should be doing this on an ongoing basis, but it is especially customary for Jews to approach friends and family this time of year to request forgiveness for the ways in which we harmed each other in the past.

Like you, I struggle with how to apply these principles of repentance to the issues facing our country and world today, and particularly to racial injustice. The harm that has been done is baked into the very fabric of our nation, and there is no past ideal of goodness to which we can return. How can we possibly begin to repent for this on both an individual and communal level?  And yet, our traditions offer some starting points. As you noted, the stories you shared both involve relationships between victim and perpetrator - we need to engage with each other in order to begin to understand and repair harm. And Maimonides offers us a call to look closely at our behavior. We need more than words, more than expressions of solidarity, but a real willingness to avoid repeating harmful behaviors and commit to anti-racist behaviors. I am just beginning to do this work, and I know it will be a long path of learning and change, but an important one.  I hope we can do this on a communal level too. As I read in a beautiful comic on atonement, “imagine teshuva (repentance) practiced on a mass scale, a society pursuing justice instead of punishment.”  I look forward to continuing our conversation and further exploring the interplay between individual and communal repentance. 

Shana tova - wishing you, your loved ones, and our world a sweet, happy and healthy new year - a year of genuine relationships, real growth, and repair. 


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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.