When Jesus called people to repentance (Mk 1:15), he was calling them to “turn away” (metanoia) from the ways of the world. Turning away from private and personal sin was certainly a part of this invitation, but in a larger sense Jesus was calling the disciples to turn away from the ways of the world which run counter to God’s righteous rule. Jesus himself participated in John’s “baptism of repentance,” not to address any personal sin of his own, but as a sign that he was walking away from the “world” he grew up in and turning his face toward God’s upside-down Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom of justice and peace the first are last and the last first, and all of our usual ways of going about life are flipped, as the Sermon on the Mount demonstrates. Allegiance to God’s Kingdom requires one to renounce the old worldly ways of power and control and to surrender oneself to God’s Spirit.

In the Free Church tradition, repentance is a prerequisite to salvation; before believers are baptized into the Body of Christ they’re asked to repent of their sins. Freedom from sin does not occur immediately — how can a person instantly withdraw from a lifetime of bad habits and addictions? — yet the turning is a necessary first step on the journey toward sanctification and healing. The rite of baptism marks one’s membership into a community of folks who have likewise committed to renouncing the ways of the world and walking in the way of God.

Now more than ever we need to repent and be saved. The social divisions which we’re experiencing in St. Louis are the result of sin. At times we have sinned through outright prejudice — we have pre-judged our neighbor on the basis of their skin-color, education, or zip code. More often though, we have simply allowed ourselves to be carried along by the world instead of challenging it. One of the most obvious examples of this in St. Louis is how we’ve chosen where to live. White politicians and business leaders have actively promoted segregated housing for nearly a century, first with red-lining and then by restrictive covenants. Segregation peaked in the 1960s and ‘70s, yet still today the average city-dwelling white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white and just 8% black. The average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 45% black and 35% white. These practices have had major social and economic implications: “black” neighborhoods drive down housing value, so that the average black household has about $75,040 in wealth stored in their home, compared with the average white household which has $217,150 in theirs. Similarly, educational and employment opportunities differ tremendously from neighborhood to neighborhood. Most disturbingly, according to a recent study by Washington University, people living in “white” neighborhoods in the city of St. Louis can expect to live 18 years longer than those living in “black” neighborhoods only a few blocks away. In our region, what might seem like a completely arbitrary fact – which neighborhood you live in – has life-and-death consequences.

At the most basic level, then, we Christians in St. Louis need to repent of failing to love our neighbors. Through our ignorance and perhaps even with good intentions, we have failed to reflect the kingdom of God on earth. When the lawyer came to Jesus and asked the famous question, “Who is my neighbor?”, Jesus responded with the story of the Samaritan man robbed and left for dead on the roadside. The parable did not explicitly condemn the most obvious sinners – the bandits who beat and robbed the Jewish man– but rather the pious priest and Levite, who passed by on the other side of the road. Like these men, the privileged among us have fallen into the habits of our fellow citizens, choosing the “good” neighborhoods with the “good” school districts, shopping etc. If confronted with the possibility of living in a “bad” neighborhood, we might very well ask, “What will happen to me and my family?” Yet as Martin Luther King observed many years ago, Jesus’ Samaritan reversed the question and asked himself instead: “If I don’t stop to help, what will happen to him?” Through our own patterns of self-segregation in neighborhoods, schools, cultural institutions, and churches, we have sinned. Through our failure to know and understand one another and one another’s cultures, we have sinned. Through our failure to show the world a better way, we have sinned. Recent events at Ferguson have brought many of these issues to light, and now we must repent, lest we all likewise perish. As a Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is now.”

Our public repentance will be a sign of our desire to turn away from the convenience of the easy way and the willful ignorance which has divided us and implicated us indirectly in the bodily and spiritual harm of our neighbors. We turn from the privilege which has made it so easy to go along with the majority. We turn away from the world’s divisive ways and towards God’s kingdom of peace. Let the fruit of our repentance be shown through our commitment to re-building diverse neighborhoods in St. Louis characterized by active listening, compassion, and justice.