So I was watching Frozen II, and it got me thinking about communal repentance.
Frozen II is a movie without a villain, or at least without a personified one. Its adversary is the past – selfish, malicious choices made by long-dead ancestors that have lingering effects on the present. The question at the heart of the film is: what responsibility do Elsa and Anna have to this past, and to those still affected by it? For Elsa, it literally calls out to her, beckoning her toward the truth. For Anna and the rest of their group, water itself contains and reveals memory.
Repentance is a Christian buzzword, often associated with shame, guilt, and a quick and painless alleviation of those things through a simple prayer. Real, biblical repentance is so much richer than that. The word repentance has its etymology in a literal “turning.” Repentance consists of turning away from some things, and turning towards other things; leaving behind old patterns of behavior, being molded by new ones. It’s not a cheap fix for wrong-doing – it’s a full reconciliation with the past and all the damage it continues to cause in the present.
Repentance is also a communal experience. Street-corner megaphone preachers shout at individuals to repent, but the Bible calls communities, congregations, cities, and even nations to repentance. What would it mean to preach repentance like that today? We need not look far to see it – there are people in the streets of nearly every American city calling us to acknowledge our collective sin and to turn away from it.
For Elsa and Anna, there was never even a question. They knew what they had to do, and it involved tearing something down so that newness could flow in. It wasn’t an abdication of blame: “I wasn’t even alive for that, why should I have to do anything about it?” It wasn’t even an empty apology: “I’m sorry that happened, can we all just move on from here?” It was decisive action to tear down the remnants of that sin, and a complete change in the status quo between peoples and places, and even their politics.
What sins call out to us from our past into our present? What memories does the water hold? Who is the “villain”, and what responsibility do we have to them? What monuments and strongholds remain to keep the victims and the perpetrators in their disparate places? I think, of course, of national sins like slavery and lynchings, and the current criminal justice system that mimic their outcomes, that reenact their memory. I think of the church’s complicity in those systems, and our revisionism to try to erase our name from those ledgers. What do we need to turn from? What do we need to turn toward? What might we need to tear down along the way?