One of my favorite scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is Delmar’s baptism:
Delmar comes up out of the water and declares his sins washed away to the point that neither God nor man has any claim on him any longer.
I thought of the scene while reading one of the less newsworthy parts of the GQ interview with Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.
During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. Kay Robertson persuaded the bar owner not to press charges in exchange for most of the Robertsons’ life savings. (“A hefty price,” he notes in his memoir.) I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.
“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.”
As far as Phil is concerned, he was literally born again. Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him: “We never, ever judge someone on who’s going to heaven, hell. That’s the Almighty’s job.
Robertson may not follow in the church of Delmar, but it sounds quite similar to me.
And that got me thinking. Is this correct? Doesn’t repentance require an effort to make right the damage we have caused others?
For some folks that could be an impossible task, of course. We cause so many hurts and wounds that we cannot even count them all, much less repair each injury. But there is still something here that sounds wrong to me. Even if we hold to a strong reading of Paul’s words that we die to the old self and rise as a new self, it seems to me that repentance toward God does not mean we have truly repented of the harm we have caused other humans. It feels to me, rather, that using our baptism as a way to absolve ourselves of wrongs we have done to other people is trading on God’s grace in ways God did not intend.
This is a complicated, pastoral question that probably does not lend itself to absolute rules. But I wonder how others understand it. To what extent does repentance require seeking to undo or heal the damage we have done to other people?