Repentance is a discipline Americans have never been good at practicing.
Our country was built on the backs of slaves, built on land belonging to Native Americans, built by conquest, and conquest rarely happens without violence. We burned this country into existence, forged it from fire, nourished it with blood. Our nation stands on ashes.
Ashes are the symbol of our repentance. We walk into a church, we repent to God, we ask to be cleansed of our individual sins. This is a private discipline, for a moment turned collective. It is a community, walking together, asking to be forgiven.
But the America our church is part of never repented, never got down on its knees, never truly walked in community. Our sin multiplies. Incarceration. Police brutality. Gentrification. Sin in the courtrooms, sin on the streets, sin in classrooms, real estate offices, living rooms. What if these ashes were the ashes of repentance for our country’s sins? Our church’s sins? Our own?
These are the ashes of Trayvon Martin.
These are the ashes of Martin Luther King.
These are the ashes of millions of Native Americans.
These are the ashes of the Middle Passage.
These are the ashes that remind us we must repent, every day, together.
These are the ashes that remind us: now is a very acceptable time to begin.
- What does it mean to repent for the sins of the past today?
- Our own past sins?
- Our country’s?
Kaya Oakes is the author of four books, most recently including The Nones Are Alright. A contributing writer at America and a senior correspondent at Religion Dispatches, she teaches nonfiction writing at the University of California, Berkeley.