On repentance, forgiveness, and the Church of the Second Chance

My friend Natalie Collins wrote a piece a few weeks ago for the (excellent) preachweb.org site responding to an earlier piece by Martin Saunders; both reflect on how a preacher might deal with the simmering news story concerning the footballer Ched Evans, who has recently been released from prison on licence for a rape conviction, and is looking for a club to resurrect his career. He is (or was) talented enough that a number of clubs are tempted; his crime, his refusal to acknowledge his guilt, and his public lack of remorse, are together sufficiently sickening that the opinion of the public and (perhaps more crucially) that of a significant number of financial sponsors is set against at having him at any particular club. As a result a rolling story is being played out, with one club after another testing the possibility of signing him and then – in every case, so far – refusing to do so, because the financial and reputational cost is too great. Natalie does an excellent job of pointing out the structural and sociological realities that lie behind this story, and I don’t really want to address the particular narrative, other than to note my agreement with what she says.

The defence offered for Evans by those who wish to employ him, or to see him employed, is uniform: ‘he’s served his time’ and deserves ‘a second chance’. The first claim is factually untrue (he is released on licence and so in law he is still serving his sentence); it is also uninteresting, at least from a Christian perspective. The interesting question here (as Martin noted) is about repentance, which is a necessary precursor to rehabilitation. What does it mean to ‘repent’ adequately? What does one need to do to be granted a ‘second chance’?

The phrase, inevitably, reminded me of Anne Tyler’s excellent novel Saint Maybe. (Actually, that is redundant: it’s a novel by Anne Tyler; obviously it is excellent). The novel tells the story of the Bedloe family, and particularly of Ian Bedloe, who is at high school as it begins, but some way in is nineteen and a freshman in college. At this point he also is (or feels) responsible for the suicides of his brother and sister-in-law. Struggling with guilt, and worrying how his parents will manage to bring up the orphaned children, he finds his way into a small storefront church called ‘The Church of the Second Chance’, pastored by the Revd Emmett. He prays for forgiveness, and falls into conversation with the pastor (quotations from pp. 122-124 of my Vintage paperback edition):

‘…don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m forgiven?’

‘Goodness, no,’ Reverend Emmett said briskly.

Ian’s mouth fell open. He wondered if he’d misunderstood. He said, ‘I’m not forgiven?’

‘Oh, no.’

‘But … I thought that was kind of the point,’ Ian said, ‘I thought God forgives everything.’

‘He does,’ Reverend Emmett said, ‘But you can’t just say, “I’m sorry, God.” Why, anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation–concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.’

‘But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?’

‘Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course … Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be … He helps with what you can’t undo. But only after you’ve tried to undo it.’

The pastor calmly tells Ian that, for him, the path to forgiveness involves dropping out of college so that he can raise the children. Ian’s response:

‘This is some kind of a test, isn’t it?’ he said finally.

Reverend Emmett nodded, smiling. Ian sagged with relief.

‘It’s God’s test,’ Reverend Emmett told him … ‘God wants to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done.’

‘But He wouldn’t really make me follow through with it.’ Ian said.

‘How else would he know, then?’

After working through the reality of this demand, Ian explodes:

‘…What kind of a cockeyed religion is this?’

‘It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness,’ Reverend Emmett said. ‘It’s the religion of the Second Chance.’

Then he set all the hymnals on the counter and turned to offer Ian a beatific smile. Ian thought he had never seen anyone so absolutely at peace.

Ian follows through on the demand, despite the horror of his parents, and the latter two-thirds of the book trace the reality of the second chance he has found through his repentance. I have some theological questions about the language Revd Emmett uses in speaking to Ian – it is a bit too much like a classical American self-help religion, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ – but there is something deep here. Real repentance must, at least, mean a burning desire to undo the wrongs done, some sort of willingness to surrender career, wealth, reputation, to make good what I have made bad.

I reflect, of course, on John McLeod Campbell’s pregnant teaching that Christ offered on our behalf the perfect repentance that we could not offer; I reflect also, however, on the nature of true contrition and how that must be involved even in our imperfect and derivative repentance. I may not be able to go all the way with the Revd Emmett, but I think I stand much closer to him than to any football club which is presently ready to employ Mr Evans.

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