In today's increasingly polarized public sphere, where people are shouting each other down online, on talk shows, and even across dinner tables, it seems like we are spiraling out of reach of each other. The more we shout the further we get from one another, and the further we get from one another the more our "debates" really become about winning and not about pursuing goodness, truth, and justice.
In that climate, a phrase from the apostle Paul keeps rattling around in my head: "God's kindness is intended to lead you to repentance." I think that hidden in this one phrase could be a a key to unlocking a new way forward as a community. Let me explain why.
First of all, Paul is writing to a group of people who are apparently pretty judgmental toward one another. A few sentences back, he says, "Whenever you condemn someone else, you're condemning yourself! You actually do the very same things!" So why would we condemn people? (The church has often been the biggest culprit of this, by the way.) We condemn people because we think that if we can back them into a corner of shame and condemnation, they will beg for release. They will change.
But that's not the way it works nine times out of ten. Usually, when a person is backed into a corner, their fight or flight response kicks in. They either start throwing punches at the condemning hypocrite in front of them or they exit the relationship altogether...or both. This is the way we are wired to respond to an attack.
Paul says when we condemn someone we are actually forgetting (and scorning) the treatment God gave (and gives) us when we need to change: a kindness that leads to repentance, a spacious love that leads to genuine transformation. God does confront us with our need for change. He's not an insecure God who needs us to like him so much that he isn't willing to tell us the hard things. But, Paul says, once the hard thing is said, he backs up, gives us space to breathe, reflect, consider, and choose to enter into the love he's holding out for us.
Do we give others that kind of space? That kind of patience? Do we listen before we speak? Does our speech tend to finish in a question mark or and exclamation mark? Do we have the courage to confront and the grace to do it gently?
To be clear, I'm not saying we are to patiently stand by and give space for injustice and oppression to occur. As Dr. King said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, "'...justice too long delayed is justice denied.... Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, 'Wait.'" No we cannot be patient with injustice.
But in our conversations about justice/injustice, in our debates about policies, in our dialogues about politics, may we remember that growth cannot happen without space. Movement cannot occur without room to move. Repentance does not happen in response in condemnation. It happens in response to grace.
And that's what Lent is. The Christian season of Lent, immediately before Easter, is 40 days of God giving us space to change, 40 days of his kindness leading us to repentance. May we be so patient with each other.