I’m all too familiar with Christian guilt. One side of my family is Irish Catholic (they of the famed “Catholic guilt”) and the other side a mix of Appalachian Protestants, from the backwoods Baptists with their hellfire sermons to the stern Scots-Irish Presbyterians with their Calvinist concept of the “total depravity” of humankind. Growing up, I heard a lot of language about sin and its bleak consequences.
It may come as no surprise, then, that I moved away from these kind of theologies and found my path to Unitarian Universalism, a religious movement which unabashedly affirms the inherent worth and dignity and goodness of people—and where there are many ex-Christians with baggage, hurt by traditions that damned everything from their thoughts about God to their gender identities and sexual orientations.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t like to use words like “sin,” “depravity,” “confession,” or “guilt”—and certainly not “hellfire.” It’s something I love about my community, this focus on the good and the potential and the beauty of the world—and something I really needed, especially when I first came to the faith. It’s something that is life-affirming—and can even be life-saving.
But, as I travel further down my path—going to seminary, working as a chaplain in the hospital, engaging with other religious traditions, facing the grave injustices of our world—I’m also relearning the beauty of repentance.
Less than a month ago, Jews across the world participated in the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. A day to atone for sins, to fast and confess and pray. To first reconcile with the fellow humans you have sinned against, then to reconcile with God. To wear white, like the clothes you will be buried in at death, a reminder of both purity and mortality.
I remember a class I took at my seminary’s Jewish partner school, a course on grief and bereavement called Mourning to Dancing. The professor, the amazing Rabbi Anne Brener, spent one of the classes talking about the rituals of Yom Kippur and repentance. As we read through a Yom Kippur vidui (confessional prayer), one of the students in the class, a Christian with a difficult upbringing in a very conservative Christian household, grew uncomfortable. For her, she said, such a litany of confessions reminded her too much of the guilt and shame shoveled upon her in her childhood.
In some ways, I resonated with her, recalling church services I’d sat through in my upbringing in the Bible Belt South—vivid descriptions of eternal suffering and the need to repent now, to give yourself up to Christ. Shame and guilt and purity culture. Feeling like my soul was irrevocably stained and broken.
But then Rabbi Brener began explaining teshuvah. The Hebrew word תשובה, translated as “repentance,” but which literally means turning—or returning. Not self-flagellation, self-loathing, self-hatred. But turning—like a person who has strayed off a path, or an arrow that has missed its mark. A motion. A dance. A change of trajectory. A possibility that is never closed off, never over. A way back to the center, the source, the wellspring of goodness in ourselves and in the universe.
It’s similar to something I’ve heard echoed in my classes on Islam, where I’ve learned that Muslims hold that humans do not have original sin, but are simply forgetful. This human forgetfulness is what leads humans to turn away from God, and why God must keep sending messengers (in the form of prophets like Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad) to remind humanity of its responsibilities in the world and connection to the divine. This idea of forgetfulness, to me, is also beautiful—again, the idea of possibility, of turning, of remembering. Always a way to come back, into mindfulness.
Which makes me think of the rituals class I’m taking this semester at my seminary’s Buddhist partner school. We recently learned about Buddhist repentance rituals. As my professor, a Tibetan Buddhist priest, began the topic, he sighed. “At American temples, we can’t call them ‘repentance’ or ‘atonement’ rituals, or none of the American converts want to come,” he lamented. “So we call them ‘attunement’ rituals. And then suddenly everyone wants to come!”
And I was not surprised. Because many of those converts, like me or my Christian classmate in that Yom Kippur class, probably don’t have good associations with words like “repentance.” “Attunement” sounds a lot more appealing than “atonement.” Yet, as a Buddhist nun in our class began giving her presentation on Buddhist repentance rituals, I was reminded again of the beauty in this idea of coming face-to-face with our shortcomings and acknowledging them.
She explained that as the Buddhists gather and chant and bow for these rituals:
We are not asking for forgiveness, but recognizing our own actions done intentionally or without mindfulness. Actions that are a result of our lack of compassion and wisdom, originating from our own attachments and aversions. And then, after recognizing those actions, we make a resolution to be as mindful as we can about trying not to repeat the action. Repentance is about forgiving one’s self of unhealthy guilt through expressing regret, and then starting fresh by renewing our resolve to do good.
Something moving about this—the self-knowledge, the humility, the recommitment to doing good in the world. The turning. The dance. Not out of fear of divine retribution, but out of compassion.
The wisdom of these different traditions has redefined the act of repentance for me, from one of shame and punishment to one of renewal. Making things new with each turning, each remembrance, each resolve.
It’s something we need more of in the world today. In that class with Rabbi Brener, she pointed out that the Yom Kippur vidui confessional does not say “For the sin which I have committed,” but “For the sin which we have committed.” It speaks of communal sin, of social wrongdoing.
I look around our society today, and I see it—the systemic injustices of racism, of violence, of poverty, of xenophobia. There is much that all of us have done to be complicit in the turning away, the forgetfulness, the uncompassionate actions that allow black and brown people to be shot in the streets by police, and indigenous peoples to be tear-gassed and attacked by dogs while trying to protect precious water, and refugees to be turned away for the name they use for God.
There is much to atone for.
Yes, I’m all too familiar with guilt. But that’s not what we need right now. We need teshuvah, remembrance, repentance. We need renewal, possibility, action.
Let’s get used to using those words again—and doing something with them.
Image Credit: Pixabay, Public Domain.