So says a spokesman for the Elysée Palace today in the heated debate as to whether France should apologise publicly for the colonisation of Algeria between 1830 and 1960. Repentance is vanity.

What this shows is an awareness, however implicit, that mere apology is not enough. Repentance is needed, and that has consequences in action. The debate moves as to the significance of that action.

But vanity? Perhaps the word was mistranslated, though given the source and their legendary commitment to accuracy, I suspect not.

What this comment suggests to me is that the spokesman saw a public repentance as an embarrassing ornament upon the national dignity of France, a carbuncle on the fair face of Marianne. Repentance may be difficult, but it is also topical.

A number of writers, Christian and otherwise, are wrestling with the appalling, but unsurprising sight of evangelical Christians among those storming the White House a fortnight ago, Jesus banners to the fore.

There are a wide range of wise responses that have been made, both here and in the US (the Sojourners’ site is always a good place to keep tabs on left-of-centre Christian thinking on this), but at the heart of most of them has been the requirement for a deep, lived repentance, a re-positioning, a turning from the cultic, spiritually-invested idolatry of Trumpism to the true King whose power resides not in exaltation of strength, but in humility and a love for the weak and the marginalised. If Jesus is Lord, then Trump, or any trumped-up Caesar, is not. Who we bow the knee to matters, as does the person in whom we place our hope and trust: it impacts directly on how we live and think, on what – and whom – we hold dear, and what – and whom – we count as worthless. Jon Kuhrt’s blog on this topic, on the way that that spiritual investment overtakes and possesses a movement, is salutary.

This attitude and action of repentance of course, would be anything but vanity. It might be an embarrassment to the church, and we would have to suck that up. It might make us look even less relevant than we appear to be, but repentance is unto God, not unto man. Yes, there will be consequences – often large financial ones – to any part of the church saying “we got this wrong, we need to change and make restitution.” Catholic and Anglicans wrestling with the consequences of decades of child abuse at the hands of their clergy and employees know this only too well. But our first responsibility in repentance is towards God, who is the author of healing and salvation.

Repentance begins, as Macron has begun to see in the relationship between France and Algeria, in a recognition of the horror of what we have done, and a realisation of the enormous impact that it has had on deforming our national life (witness the long-term social deprivation of North African immigrants to France) and on our view of ourselves. It is not repentance that sticks a carbuncle on Marianne’s face – it is the sin itself – of colonisation and cruelty, of the denial of egalité, liberté, fraternité. The removal of such a blemish through apology and concerted action to make good on the ill we have committed. But even Macron cannot bring himself to find a way to repentance for those crimes.

Many years ago, I was speaking at a Pentecostal youth conference at Bloubergstrand, across the bay from Table Mountain. I was with two other speakers, Graham Cyster and John Mtwana, who were considerably older than I was, and wiser. The young people had come together from black and white churches to learn from each other. My brief was to speak to the issue around conscription into the army (to speak against it was a crime at the time, so I chose my words carefully) and to show the issue from the perspective of both sides, since the military – including National Servicemen – were commonly being used at the time in support of the police in quelling unrest in townships across South Africa.

At the end of the talk, after various brickbats had been thrown my way from the young audience (mostly about keeping religion out of politics, and me going back to Britain where I was from), one impassioned young woman said – “We didn’t build these walls – that was our parents’ generation! We had nothing to do with that!”

That opened up a serious issue which actually gained traction: what do we do about the sins of our fathers? In South Africa, the only way to address it was to say – yes, your fathers built these walls of separation, of apartheid, but you have lived in the security and injustice that they created, and with all the benefits that that separation affords you. To offer justice, there will be a cost, economic and personal. Breaking down walls allows water to flood where it will, and would have to lead to a ceding of privilege and an embracing of a repentant approach to black brothers and sisters.

The BLM movement in the UK has challenged some very ancient stereotypes and attitudes, because racism – and the economic foundation that our investment in slavery allowed us to lay in this country – not only is much older than South African apartheid, but has its roots in the Norman conquest and the establishment of feudalism and the British class system, as well as the Anglocentrism that extended its colonial tentacles across Wales, Ireland and Scotland – and thence across the world. These are the walls we have to dismantle, and they are very, very old indeed. It will take a lifetime fully to account for them and to build some sort of equality in our society that recognises that as sin and repents of it.

This kind of repentance will not be vanity – it will be the restoration of beauty and a step towards the favour of God.

About Huw Humphreys

I am a teacher and school leader by calling, now working as a lecturer in a large London university, where I have been since January 2021. I am also an educational researcher, seeking to help make education effective for the whole child. I tend to keep a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, pretend linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own and (hopefully) do not represent those of anyone I work for or with!

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