World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Together on the Way: 2.3. Metanoia

Wanda Deifelt, vice-rector and professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Sao Leopoldo, Brazil, and a member of the Evangelical Church of Lutheran Confession in Brazil, spoke about "metanoia" - "conversion" - naming the ways that Christians need to repent. Following her reflections selected delegates read, in different voices and in different languages, passages of scripture related to the "jubilee year" (Lev. 25:8-17, 39-43).

04 December 1998

Metanoia

by Wanda Deifelt

There are times, although perhaps not sufficient, when humanity realizes the need for true conversion, for changing around and starting anew. These moments, in which God breaks into history, not only remind us that we have broken away from the divine, but also that in sinfulness we have essentially lost our humanity. By losing touch which that which makes us human we become insensitive towards the needs of our neighbours and ourselves.

Metanoia, conversion, makes us come to terms with the ambiguity of human existence: we are saints and sinners at the same time. We have the capacity for goodness and generosity and love. But we also have the potential for evil, selfishness and hatred. In the midst of this struggle, we easily give in to the arguments of self-preservation and maintenance of the status quo. We forget to dare. It is always staggering to realize how easily we as Christians comply with the standards of this world. The passion for justice, the capacity to take risks and rehearse more egalitarian relations among us has long been domesticated.

As human beings, we are always at the crossroads between change and accommodation. Yet we also long for a different reality. We miss and feel homesick for something that cannot be reached through our own efforts. This search is better translated in the words of Nelle Morton: "I came to know that home was not a place. Home is a movement, a quality of relationship, a state where people seek to be ‘their own', and increasingly responsible for the world." This is our feeling towards the reality of the reign of God: a situation of justice, peace, reconnection and reconciliation. We long for something that exists but is not yet fully -- a reality that can only be established through God, in Jesus Christ and with the power of the Holy Spirit, that will bring us home.

Thus, as prodigal children returning home, we repent. We repent, first, of the way we perceive God. Chico César, a Brazilian song-writer and musician, sings with his Afro beat: "There are people who don't leave God alone, who treat God as their personal employee. These people are the devil and make God's life hell." We repent of our attempts to domesticate God and define God's greatness with our limited language and experience. We confess that we use God's name to justify human affairs. Thus we pray: "Your will be done in heaven as it is on earth".

We also repent of the way we perceive our fellow human beings. According to the Genesis narrative, God created male and female in God's image. All human beings reflect the divine image, independent of class, race, caste, gender, age or sexual preference. If we look into each other's eyes, we can catch a glimpse of the divine. When human relationship is broken, we can no longer face each other, look into another person's eyes. Either we look from above, in a position of power, or we look from below, as we experience powerlessness. To look into the eyes of another human being is to occupy the same space and stand as equals. Metanoia is conversion to otherness. The strange and unfamiliar are placed under the protective wings of God, under the cross of Christ.

Thus we are invited to live out our solidarity with one another, being the extended arms of Christ in all-encompassing embrace. We are asked to be in solidarity with AIDS victims. There are now more than 33 million people in the world infected by the HIV virus, and in Africa alone there are 22 million. Half of the HIV-infected are between the ages of 15 and 24, leading us to think about the future of our youth. We are asked to repent of our passivity towards famine, war, the massacre of indigenous populations and the death of millions of children who do not have access to adequate drinking water or health care.

As we approach the end of the millennium, it is with shame that we look at the economic disparities among human beings and nations. Waste and scarcity are neighbours. On the one hand, there are a few people flooded by the amount of material things they acquire; on the other, there is a multitude of dispossessed, whose life is defined as "less": jobless, landless, homeless, voiceless, powerless -- in short, everything that makes the poor person less than human being.

It is said that the 20th century is the great century of women. Never before now have so many women had as much access to legal rights, education, property, leadership in church and society. The World Council of Churches even declared 1988-98 to be the "Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women". However, women and girls continue to face the hardships of discrimination, violence, prostitution, mutilation and rape. In many cultures and societies women are still not perceived as full human beings, with potentials to develop and gifts to share, as children of God called into communion. From the Decade reports, it is questionable whether this was really a decade of solidarity of the churches with women, or if it was a decade of solidarity of the women with other women.

We repent of the way we perceive nature and treat God's creation. We recognize how little effect our gestures towards a more hospitable environment have had, in light of the pervading omnicide that kills not only human beings, but animals, plants and the whole ecological system. We presume that, as human beings, we are at the centre of creation, having been given power to subdue and dominate the earth. However, we are co-dependent. After all, God did not even have a separate day for the creation of humanity but made Adam in the same day and right next to "cattle and creeping things and beasts" (Genesis 1:24).

Although we include repentance in our worship, do we really grasp its meaning? Many of us feel "clean" because we have done nothing wrong. Sometimes, however, we sin not by what we have done but by what we have left undone. We sin by omission, not only by commission. Let us not wash our hands like Pilate, and pretend that our cleanness is purity of heart. Instead, let us dare to prophesy and to get dirt on our hands: the dirt of the slums, of the poor people, of the children who sleep on the streets, of the teenagers who are thrown into prostitution by sex tourism, of drug addicts who find no meaning for their lives. Let us risk getting dirt on our hands by reaching out and holding the hand of the other, the one who displaces us from our truths and certainties. Then we will realize that the other is the holy with the face of God.

Thus, we turn to God, to the divine in us, to the divine in others and to the divine in nature. Turning to God is also turning towards humanity and acknowledging the suffering, pain and death that mark our times. Metanoia brings tears to our eyes. We recognize how fragile human beings are, how much we need God's grace and love. The Spanish poet León Felipe, after his life-long exile in Mexico, wrote on the occasion of his 80th birthday about the courage of reaching one's limit with tears in one's eyes: "When my eyes reach it, the function of my eyes will no longer be of crying but of seeing. All the light in the universe, the divine, the poetic, that which we seek, we will see though the window of some shed tears."

We see the world through our tears. To see with tears in our eyes is to recognize that we can see only partially: we stand on the side of those who are suffering. To see with blurred eyes is not to be absent from this world. Like Mary Magdalene, weeping outside the tomb. Her shed tears identified her with the one who was persecuted, and died on the cross. To weep for and with the suffering is to place ourselves on their side, and to suffer the consequences of that position. It is to announce, with Paul, that death does not prevail, but the integrity of God's creation, through resurrection.

As a foretaste of the feast to come, we call upon the people to turn to God and rejoice in hope, testifying here and now that signs of the Reign of God are already present in our midst. The Kingdom of God does not exist because of your effort or mine. It exists because of God. We as Christians are invited to be signs of this Kingdom in our midst, being the prophetic voice of our times. What message do we give to the world when Christians cannot speak in one voice against the injustices of our times? Why do we as Christians spend so much time and energy on the issues that separate as individuals and as churches? Our times demand a much stronger statement from us: they demand that we take risks and be passionately in love with life, and life in abundance.

When the World Council of Churches was started, 50 years ago, the issues to be addressed were clear. Reconciliation and reconstruction after the two European wars of this century was an imperative. It was a time for healing, for repairing the injustice towards those persecuted under the Nazi regime. Nowadays, as much as in that time, we need prophetic voices, voices of reconciliation and vision towards the future. However, with much regret, we realize that prophesying has gradually been replaced by profiteering. Sometimes, profits are much more valued in our churches than prophets are, and the cooperative spirit among ourselves has given place to competition. For this, we as churches should also repent.

God breaks into history to be crucified. As Christians, we see the world from the perspective of Christ on the cross. We see the world with tears in our eyes because we feel the pain and the suffering of the world. Nothing can be more radical than saying "I believe in Christ" while standing at the foot of the cross. This is the deep commitment of God with humanity, a God that does not turn God's back on us or judge us according to our merits, but finds us where we are and reaches out a gracious hand to embrace us, inviting us back into fellowship.

The crosses made in El Salvador symbolize this new dimension of reconnecting to God and the others. In lively colours, they show God's presence in the midst of the poor, the simple and the outcast. The suffering of Christ makes it possible for us to repent and say: no longer is suffering acceptable. We can celebrate the fruits of reconciliation with God and one another as we would savour the first fruits of a harvest. The fruits of repentance are justice, freedom, peace, equality, respect and dignity for all of God's children. So, then, we are invited to turn to God -- confessing our sins and setting the path of justice straight again -- and to rejoice in hope.