AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel
This week begins Lent for the vast majority of American Christians. Lent is a season in which Christians spend forty days preparing to celebrate the saving crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth at Easter. It is a time to obey Jesus’ and his Apostles’ message: repent! Turn away from your sins! Turn toward the Lord who will forgive you, save you from sin and death, and save you for a new and glorious life that has already begun and will be completed after this life. What we need is for our nation to undergo a season of repentance.
To some, such a suggestion will sound crazy. Repentance? Doesn’t this violate the separation of church and state? Yet focusing on repentance as a nation is part and parcel of this country’s history. And it has often been in the spring. In February of 1786, New Hampshire Governor John Langdon declared a Day of Public Fasting and Prayer, placing his order in an already-established tradition: “[i]t having been the laudable practice of this State, at the opening of the Spring, to set apart a day…to…penitently confess their manifold sins and transgressions, and fervently implore the divine benediction, that a true spirit of repentance and humiliation may be poured out upon all….” Nor was it merely in the states. Presidents John Adams, James Madison, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln were among the Presidents to call for days of repentance, usually called days of “Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer.”
They stood in the broad Christian (and Jewish) tradition of understanding of human beings as both personal and communal. God cares about each person’s moral life as well as the life of nations themselves. In the vision of Isaiah the Prophet, it is the “nations” that will “flow to” the mountain of the Lord. In the book of Revelation, the fruit of the trees that grow alongside the River of Life is said to be for “the healing of the nations.” And all through the Bible are calls for nations themselves to repent and turn around.
Of course, some will say of the first century of American history that that was then and this is now. Can we really have a group repentance? What might it mean? Doesn’t it end up simply being a way to blame others? And haven’t we seen many people try to destroy love of country this way by insisting that Americans focus obsessively and exclusively on failings of the past? Isn’t this just a disguised power grab? Many such objections are answered in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations,” first published in the book From Under the Rubble well before the fall of the Soviet Union. This essay provides a case for and defense of a vision of national repentance that is worth examining.
Not a theologian, but a great Christian humanist, Solzhenitsyn believed, as did our own Founders, that national repentance is not an option but a necessity, “a matter of life and death—not for the sake of a life beyond the grave (which is thought merely comic nowadays), but for the sake of our life here and now and our very survival on this earth.” He saw the threat of nuclear war, the danger of ecological problems, and the “white-hot tension between nations and races” as real threats.
Writing long after the age of Madison and Jefferson, he was convinced in the way that Isaiah, John, and the American Founders were that we can speak of nations and national character in a coherent way. In Russian in Collapse, he wrote: “A nation is a family, too, except an order of magnitude higher in numbers. It is bound by unique internal ties: a common language, a common cultural tradition, a shared historical memory, and a shared set of problems to resolve in the future.” There is what he calls in “Repentance and Self-Limitation” a “mystical givenness” about a nation, indeed a “full spiritual life.”
One doesn’t have to be a collectivist to see that there is such a thing as a national character. As Solzhenitsyn observes in “Repentance and Self-Limitation,” we all “apply even to the biggest social events or human organizations, including whole states and the United Nations, our spiritual values: noble, base, courageous, cowardly, hypocritical, false, cruel, magnanimous, just, unjust, and so on.” Even “the most extreme economic materialists” will write in such a manner “since they remain after all human beings.” And human beings can see how “whatever feelings predominate in the members of a given society at a given moment in time…will serve to color the whole of that society and determine its moral character.” And it is the moral, indeed spiritual, character of the nation that determines its fate.
It is because nations, as individuals, can change that we can talk about repentance. Solzhenitsyn wrote in Russia in Collapse that the “character of a people is not fixed eternally. It shifts over centuries, sometimes over just decades, depending on the environment and landscape that fills the soul, on the events that occur with a people, on the spirit of the age—especially during a time of sharp changes.” Yet those changes are not simply effected from the outside. They depend upon the people within.
National repentance is a task “[f]or each and every individual” as well as politicians, political parties, and the nation as a whole. “True,” he admits, “repentant political parties are about as frequently encountered in history as tiger-doves.” But, he notes comically, that possibility is still there since “many [politicians] do not lose their human qualities.” But we can see in a nation a “shifting boundary between good and evil” that “oscillates continuously in the consciousness of a nation, sometimes very violently….” No nation, he writes, will be free of a national sin that arises or is excused by a national sentiment or at least one that has captured a good bit of the nation’s soul—usually the part residing in political leaders.
To call out such sins is part of a healthy patriotism. Like Chesterton, who observed that to say “my country, right or wrong” was as nonsensical as saying “my mother, drunk or sober,” Solzhenitsyn believed that true patriotism required seeking out the mending of the flaws of the patria. “As we understand it,” he writes, “patriotism means unqualified and unwavering love for the nation, which implies not uncritical eagerness to serve, not support for unjust claims, but frank assessment of its vices and sins, and penitence for them.”
There is indeed a danger, Solzhenitsyn writes, for any man making such frank assessments and calling for national repentance. For to say our country has sinned requires some “distribution of the blame” for it, a dangerous task indeed and one that cannot be fully taken up by any human being definitively. But such a difficult task is necessary at times.
What can be done to make sure that such a cry for national repentance is not merely another attempt to gain power? First, Solzhenitsyn believes that such cries must be seen as acts of true patriotism. He quotes the theologian Sergius Bulgakov, who wrote that “only suffering love gives one the right to criticize one’s own nation.”
Second, he makes clear that it cannot be a matter of simply blaming “anyone and everyone except you and me!” Even those who are on the side of right in the main go astray. And one of the biggest ways this happens for ordinary citizens is our silence and complicity with evils, sometimes done by those on our political side. The personal and the political are welded in this way: we must be ready to see and confess our own parts in the nation’s sins if we are serious. This doesn’t mean, as Solzhenitsyn scholar Daniel Mahoney has put it, confusing “masochistic self-hatred” for “contrition.” Solzhenitsyn affirms that to repent of the nation’s sins does not mean “to scrape all the guilt from mother earth and load it onto ourselves.” Too often what passes for calls for repentance in this country is a condemnation without hope of forgiveness or redemption, which is far from Lenten hope and practice.
Solzhenitsyn’s desire for Russia under the weight of the Soviet Union was that as many as possible would take on the task of true contrition so that new life would emerge “from under the rubble.” “But if millions pour out their repentance, their confessions, their contrite sorrow—not all of them perhaps publicly, but among friends and people who know them—what could all this together be called except ‘the repentance of the nation’?”
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once observed that “God is not indifferent to the American Experiment.” Nor should we be. Like Solzhenitsyn and his beloved and anguished country, we in this Lent should express our sorrow for those things that we have done and failed to do in our personal life—and also in the life our nation. In doing so, we will be answering to a deep human need and renewing the understanding that guided our nation from the Founders to Lincoln and beyond.
David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. Follow him on X @davidpdeavel.