Friday, March 31, 2006

Making Things Right



My time in South Africa got me thinking about the importance of making things right after you’ve made ‘em wrong.

Old timey Christians used to call that penance.

Current pop Christian culture and secular therapeutic culture are both big on forgiveness. Asking for forgiveness and giving forgiveness and forgiving yourself are at the heart of our soul sense right now. That’s all to the good.

More serious spiritual types outside of the mainstream are into what our ancestors used to call repentance. That means turning your life around and living differently after you figure out you’re not getting it right. That’s even more to the good.

But penance has sort of dropped out of our religious and psychological vocabulary. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons on forgiveness and repentance but I don’t recall hearing much about making things right after you’ve made ‘em wrong.

Medieval Christians thought penance was pretty important to a healthy soul. They believed that genuine forgiveness and repentance could only happen if the wrong doer did everything in their power to make things right. They even came up with a place after death called purgatory where you could finish up your penance before you graduated to heaven.

In that "paleo-view" of the world they recognized that sometimes you could restore what was lost and sometimes you couldn’t. If you stole money from someone you could restore it in full. If you took someone’s life or their future, you could only do your best to pay back "pennies on the dollar." They thought if you couldn’t pay things back in full you should undergo an ordeal of suffering to make amends and to understand in a deep way what you’d inflicted on others. They believed that was the only way to be saved.

Saw The Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada and Tsotsi in the past couple of weeks. Wonderful flicks. Both of them about penance. I can’t remember a movie since The Mission way back in the 80’s that took that idea seriously. The LA Times ranked Three in their top 5 flicks of 05 and Tsotsi won the Academy Award for best foreign film. The first 30 minutes of Three are hard to sit through but it’s worth the wait.

The Three Burials is about a border patrol agent living in a version of hell (a small border town in Texas :^). He’s arrogant and careless and accidentally shoots and kills an illegal immigrant cowboy. The Mexican cowboy’s close friend--an old white Texan played by Tommy Lee Jones--promises his friend Melchiades that he’ll take his body back to Mexico for burial if he dies. When he learns his friend has been killed by the border patrol agent and that the local sheriff isn’t going to do anything about it, he kidnaps the border patrol agent and digs up the body and takes ‘em both on horseback to Mexico to fulfill his promise.

I won’t give away more details, but it’s a moving and very Catholic take on someone forced to do penance in order to find forgiveness and redemption. Powerful ending. Might have some relevance for the current illegal immigration debate.

Tsotsi is a South African movie. Rebecca took Jan and I to see it today because she thought it captured some of what she experienced in the townships around Cape Town.

Tsotsi’s a young gangster in one of the townships around Johannesburg. He’s a monster in a place that creates monsters. Like Three, the movie is straightforwardly religious without seeming religious at all. South African hip hop. The kind of hip hop with something authentic to say. Tsotsi’s soul gets saved through trying to make right what he made wrong even though he still has to face the consequences of his life. Very creative and unique. The ending is even more powerful than in Three. For those of my friends working with inner city kids, take 'em to see this flick.

Made me wonder when penance ends. You can be forgiven but still be on the hook in the old timey religious way of thinking until things are put right. Does it continue from one generation to another if things still aren't right in even a pennies on the dollar sort of way? Wonder if differences in viewing penance are underneath the debate about affirmative action, dealing with Native Americans, international aid and debt relief, etc?

4 Comments:

Blogger 3wishes said...

Thanks for the movie reviews wordcat. My thoughts on penance this morning: Will the mechanic that wants 300 to fix my windshield wiper motor have to pay up one day? :^

10:03 AM  
Blogger jon said...

There's a body of modern Christianity that not only finds penance unnecessary, but sees it as wrong and maybe sinful (the group that often worries whether you are trying to get salvation based on works rather than faith). I don't agree with that body, but I'd like to hear more from someone who does.

When you first started talking about penance, "The Mission" was the very first thing that came to my mind. I would love to see both of these movies sometime - it would be interesting if I could get my kids to come as well.

My feelings of penance very much align with my feelings about dealing with Native Americans. If it were doable, I would support the handing over of Alaska, the Yukon territories, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon tomorrow (I think that would be a fairly good-sized, varied, resource-rich and relatively unruined area for the current American Indian population).

My feelings about affirmative action are very different - I am against it not because I don't think it's justified, but because I think it is a bad idea psychologically. If we instead invested a ton of money into the early education and family counseling of African-American and Latino students, I would definitely support that.

The same goes for my feelings about international aid and debt relief. They are justified as long as they will work, but I think there are times when there might be other, more effective options (and I say this as someone who has supported and continues to support Bono's campaigns).

5:38 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Maybe so 3. My wiper on the Jeep is messed up so I'm hoping I'll get a better quote than you did.

Great stuff as always Jon.

Yeah, I'm very familiar with that group. Poor theology from my point of view. But understandable theology given the wierd excesses of medieval theology. A lot of unfortunate current Protestant theology is a reaction to the worst medieval thinking. We live in a world of changes in real time but religion seems to move along in 500 year increments.

I just wish current Christian theology would stop fighting 500 year old wars and get with what's going on right now. I'm not sure what to make of the Emergent Church thing but at least they're trying to do something more relevant.

We're on the same page re native american stuff and in the same neighborhood with affirmative action and debt relief.

I think the idea of penance would help balance the unhealthy spirituality and counseling ethos we're got going on right now.

9:37 PM  
Blogger limco said...

I saw both of these movies and loved them. They are still in my mind and I agree they are wonderful films about repentance and the penance that comes with it. It is so hard to see someone do something horrible and believe they can repent and be forgiven. These movies are not about feeling good, they are about saving your soul and doing the right thing. I recommend that you see them both.

9:25 PM  

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