We are all familiar with the crazy-looking street preacher in some public square haranguing every passer by with a message of doom and gloom while holding up a sign which reads, "Repent, the end is near!"
Well, as the Members of Congress go home to their districts in honor of the Jewish Holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, it might be appropriate for their constituents to welcome them home with just such a placard.
You see this Jewish holiday begins a ten-day period during which Jews spend time in self-reflection and repentance, particularly in seeking to mend relations with those they may have wronged during the year. The ten days culminate on Yom Kippur, when one repents of sins against God. Judaism believes that while God forgives sins against God, each person must repent and seek forgiveness from other people against whom they have sinned.
And I can't think of a better thing for the Members of Congress -- Jewish or not -- to do while at home than repent, because the end is indeed near. Last week, I suggested that the financial managers who helped precipitate this economic crisis be paraded down Wall Street in sackcloth and ashes. Now it may be time for their Congressional colleagues to join them.
In the midst of a crisis that is both structural and spiritual, it is indeed appropriate for us all to reflect on what repentance means. Biblically, it means a turning around, a change in direction, a reversing of ones' course and beginning to walk an entirely new path. After the House of Representatives rejected the most current "rescue plan" for the economy, and the stock market immediately lost $1.2 trillion in value, including in people's retirement funds and college savings accounts, some repentance does seem to be in order - both that this was such a flawed bill and that Washington and Wall Street allowed the financial situation to so deteriorate that a flawed bill was painfully necessary.
But what might the Members of Congress repent of?
Perhaps the putting of other things, including ideology, re-election, partisan advantage, and public posturing ahead of the national interest and the common good -- not just yesterday, but for years. Perhaps the looking after their own interests, including their own financial success and career goals, over the interests of their most ordinary constituents.
Perhaps paying more attention to the financial benefits to the country's financial institutions (that, in most cases, also significantly benefit them) than to the benefits coming to the average Americans who vote for them.
Perhaps by focusing more on a Wall Street bailout than to the relief of those suffering disastrous housing foreclosures or the loss of jobs; and preferring a top-down rescue rather than a bottom-up one.
Perhaps by substituting political calculation for political leadership, crying for credibility, partisan blaming for moral authority, and rejecting imperfect solutions for no solutions at all. And there may be some things on a more personal level that Congresspersons may also need to repent of that might clear their heads and hearts for more effective leadership.
As for the rest of us, perhaps we could also reflect on our need for repentance.
For being seduced into lifestyles beyond our means and contrary to our religious traditions of simplicity and stewardship.
For living on far too much credit, rather than living within our limits.
For sometimes putting economic values ahead of family values. For letting the relentless assault of advertising and a culture of consumption to seed in us the sin of covetousness.
For valuing our lives too much by the cultural values of worth, instead of by the values of the kingdom of God.
And, for the students at Harvard (where I sometimes teach), the fact that half of you want to go into investment banking as a career is a sign that something has gone wrong with the culture. Repent, and make sure your vocation benefits the common good.
Maybe we should all go to synagogue or church in the next ten days in order to repent. Because if we don't, the end of a lot of things may indeed be near.