If you change a few words in one of C. S. Lewis’s essays, it directly challenges today’s “evangelical church repentance” impulses.
Lewis says England’s Christians are evaluating the last war, World War I. They’re also concerned about “the present war,” World War II. Most of us now believe the Allies had to fight in this war. But these Christians suspected otherwise. They were even calling for some sort of “national repentance” on behalf of England.3
Young Christians especially last-year undergraduates and first-year curates are turning to [the “national repentance” concept] in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England. What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine. Most of these young men were children, and none of them had a vote or the experience which would enable them to use a vote wisely, when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?
Defining ‘evangelical church repentance’
Unfortunately, I see a lot of younger evangelical Christians who seem to practice “evangelical church repentance.”
Sometimes this is more a tone of such “repentance,” that is, a general sense of regret. Or sometimes it’s an overt expression. People may say, “I’m so sorry for what the church did to X group.” Such a person, by proxy, may “repent” for the evangelical church. But often the person simply repeats 1940s young Christians’s condemnation of Britain and applies this to the United States.
Following Lewis’s example, I won’t cite specific examples of this “evangelical church repentance,” or link to nasty tweets and such. Readers have likely seen examples of this same impulse, especially on social media. Like Lewis, I also want to ignore questions about whether these apologies “work,” pragmatically, to win skeptics or the marginalized to hear more about Jesus. Those questions matter. But so do the Scripture’s direct calling to be charitable to everyone, not just specific groups of people.
I also won’t speak against the rightness of these evangelicals’ cause, any more than I would speak against the 1940s Christians’ rightful concerns. The 1940s Christians saw attitudes in their Christians neighbors that we can’t see today. (This may include hatred or prejudice against the German people, a risk Lewis wrote about elsewhere in his work.)
Similarly, today, many of these young evangelicals have grown up in church or ministry environments that I don’t know about. They’ve seen provincial attitudes, anger, bitterness, and acts of overt prejudice that I haven’t seen. If their elders or faith heroes were politically active, the young evangelicals have seen acts of compromise or even spiritual abuse.
So this story isn’t about whether the young evangelicals have just cause to speak out. (In fact, let’s assume that they do.) It’s about how young Christians are reacting to these evils in their heart-revealing speech. It’s about how the world, and how our Christian neighbors, see these young evangelical activists respond. Moreover, it’s about how a person’s responses slowly change his or her heart as an individual.
‘Dangers of National Repentance’: remixed
Lewis shares this heart-level concern in “Dangers of National Repentance.” I’ve made a few word changes in brackets to apply this to modern “repentance” for the evangelical church. It’s startling how much Lewis’s wisdom applies today.4
If [young Christians are repenting for what they have in no sense done], it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that.
[The evangelical church] is not a natural agent, but a [society of saints organized to disciple others and fulfill Christ’s great commission in local groups]. When we speak of [the evangelical church’s] actions we mean the actions of [evangelical church leaders]. The young man who is called upon to repent of [the evangelical church’s activity, including in politics and culture] is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour; for a [pastor or ministry leader] is certainly a neighbour.
And repentance presupposes condemnation.
The first and fatal charm of [evangelical church repentance] is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing but, first, of denouncing the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which [evangelical church] repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the [church] not ‘they’ but ‘we’. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a [church] which is called ‘we’ is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice.
You can say anything you please about it.
You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our [evangelical church] sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the [church], whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’
Love your enemies, love them, and do not project on them your own father issues?
In this next (modified) excerpt, Lewis actually dares—very, very gently—to suggest a psychological motive for these youthful penitent.
All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But ‘my enemy’ primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate and traduce.
If you listen to young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names — [the right-wing patriotic conservative] and ‘the business man’. I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker’s father, but that is speculation.
Based on this speculation, I can’t help but wonder more. How many of the loudest, most desperate younger Christians in social activism have similar family conflicts? Would they find their confidence in Christ improved if they could resolve these conflicts first? Would such resolution even help improve their capability to fight against prejudice and for justice in our communities?
What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the [marginalized persons] and to open their eyes to the sins of [the church], you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion.
I do not mean that what you are asking them is not right and necessary in itself; we must forgive all our enemies or be damned.
But it is emphatically not the exhortation which your audience needs. The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class — its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obliquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment.5 Of these sins I have heard nothing among them.
Till I do, I must think their candour towards the [evangelical church] enemy a rather inexpensive virtue. If a man cannot forgive the [the right-wing patriotic conservative] next door, whom he hath seen, how can he forgive the [marginalized persons] whom he hath not seen?
Gleeful ‘rebuking’: path to the dark side
Finally, Lewis very carefully zooms into the great risk of “national repentance” on the penitent person’s heart. He’s careful to acknowledge that a spiritually growing person may need to disagree with parents or elders.6 But what matters is how and with what heart attitude the person expresses this disagreement.
Is it not, then, the duty of the Church to preach [evangelical church repentance]?
I think it is.
But the office — like many others — can be profitably discharged only by those who discharge it with reluctance.
We know that a man may have to ‘hate’ his mother for the Lord’s sake. The sight of a Christian rebuking his mother, though tragic, may be edifying; but only if we are quite sure that he has been a good son and that, in his rebuke, spiritual zeal is triumphing, not without agony over strong natural affection. The moment there is reason to suspect that he enjoys rebuking her that he believes himself to be rising above the natural level while he is still, in reality, grovelling below it in the unnatural—the spectacle becomes merely disgusting.
The hard sayings of our Lord are wholesome to those only who find them hard.
For these lengthier article, I drew inspiration from Kevin DeYoung’s shorter article, “False Apology Syndrome,” from 2009. DeYoung remarks:
Younger generation today face these same dangers with regard to the church. In confessing all the sins of the church, we have everything to gain and nothing to mortify. This isn’t to suggest that the church hasn’t gotten things dreadfully wrong, but it is to suggest that slavery and the crusades are not the things thirty-something Americans are likely to get wrong today. We would do well to listen to Lewis from seven decades ago.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Starting with me. Because this “repentance” may not have even reached its final form. If we’re not careful, we may find ourselves “repenting” on behalf of all those young Christians who “repent” on behalf of the evangelical church.
- My copy is found in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (1970). It’s a selection of catch-all essays from Lewis on various topics, edited by Walter Hooper. ↩
- Hooper’s notes say this essay was originally printed in The Guardian, March 15, 1940 (God in the Dock, page 15). ↩
- Lewis, perhaps out of his own charity, does not cite specific examples of the movement he condemns. This makes me wonder if he was picking up on this here and there, and/or in casual conversations. This movement may have been more of a “meme,” the kind of notion that today would get a hashtag. Such a series of ideas, or moral impulses, need not be written about in books or scholarly articles to prove harmfully influential. ↩
- I prefer to capitalize “the Church,” and avoid the often-charged or vague term “evangelical.” But this could confuse some readers, who might, say, confuse “the Church” with a particular denomination, such as the Roman Catholic Church. Here I will lowercase the term. ↩
- Here, Hooper footnotes Lewis’s original text with the verse in the KJV: “‘Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.’ Exodus xx. 12.” ↩
- Lewis may have been thinking here of Mark 10:29. Hooper in his text footnotes Luke 14:26. ↩