Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is “Borges and Me,” a memoir of his travels in the highlands of Scotland with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1971. He is also the author of “The Way of Jesus” and “The Damascus Road,” a novel about St. Paul. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
As we enter into the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday in a little over a week, all Christians must think seriously about the challenge that Jesus put before us. Penitence is about turning away from one’s past sins, then turning in a fresh direction. The Greek word for “turning” in the Gospels is metanoia, which means – quite literally – going beyond one’s past thinking, opening up to the wider mind of God and the possibilities for redemption.
Which brings us to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose stunning non-apology last week on the floor of the House, and her subsequent social media post and press conference, were an object lesson in how not to seriously seek forgiveness. Indeed, Christians need only consult the Gospels to see why – and heed what these counsel, not what Greene has demonstrated.
She said, for House colleagues, and the cameras: “I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to say things that I don’t believe and shouldn’t have said in the first place, and I’m grateful to God because he has forgiven me.” OK. I sort of get what she means.
At a press conference the following day, she repeated much of her apology, but she added plenty of defiance, mockery, snark. Nevertheless, there is indeed a way for Greene to actually model the humility and remorse called for by Jesus, should she choose to, particularly in this holy season as we prepare for Easter.
As we know, Greene has suggested some pretty hurtful things in recent times: agreeing with a comment on Facebook that the Parkland mass shooting in 2018 was a “false flag,” and suggesting that the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2019 was somehow “staged” in an effort to draw sympathy for gun control – hideous assertions, given the lives lost in these massacres.
Elsewhere, she has alluded to hanging former President Barack Obama and executing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She declaimed that Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and weren’t “really official” members of Congress because they didn’t take their oath of office on the Bible, as both are Muslims. On and on, the list of her absurd and dangerously hurtful remarks is long and horrifying.
That her party refuses to censure her – indeed, some of her GOP colleagues gave her a standing ovation for her reported remarks of regret at a closed door conference meeting last Wednesday – is another story altogether, and hardly a spur to true penitence.
In her House floor apology, just before 11 Republicans joined House Democrats in removing her committee assignments, she offered “None of us are perfect, none of us are.” But the next morning, she tweeted, mockingly “I woke up early this morning literally laughing thinking about what a bunch of morons the Democrats (+11) are for giving someone like me free time.” She vowed to use that “free time” to further partisan causes.
And at a press conference later that day, Greene wrapped herself in a cloak of religion – perhaps “religiosity” is a better word – offering an odd version of evangelical Christ-speak. A cross dangled from her neck. She invoked Jesus Christ, who, in her words, “only wants us to share the Gospel.” (She later added: “My district is thrilled with me.”) But this would have been more convincing had she offered any evidence – any at all – that she grasped the core message of that Gospel.
To be clear: It’s a good thing that Greene understood the need to ask God for forgiveness, given the things she has publicly said and done, the people she has harmed. Credit where it’s due: She was willing to “repent” in public.
Real repentance, however, implies a change of heart.
Paul the apostle, for instance, explains that those who consider themselves “in Christ” must show “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12) And in Matthew, Jesus explains: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus asked us to show sympathy for those in distress. Surely, Greene is familiar with these biblical injunctions.
But it’s hard to think that she has taken this teaching of Jesus on board when she sees no reason, for example, to apologize for an incident in which she unkindly chased down and harassed David Hogg, a young man only several weeks out from experiencing the trauma of losing 14 classmates in a high school shooting. “He’s a coward!” she told the camera – after following Hogg for nearly two minutes, haranguing him as he strode on silently – and suggested that he was paid to lobby for gun control by George Soros.
On Friday, asked by a reporter at the press conference whether she would apologize to Hogg, she shot back: “David Hogg was an adult when I talked to him. I don’t think any of you have realized that … No, I’m not sorry for telling him he shouldn’t push for gun control.”
John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, called out to his followers: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near!” (Matthew 3:2). Jesus actually began his ministry with a similar call: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15).
Christianity is not about claiming that your own sins have been forgiven and then, with a shake of the head, thinking: Whew, I nailed that press conference! It’s about showing real penitence before God. It’s about making amends, about changing your ways. We’re all sinners, of course: this is the starting point of Christian thinking. We err. And repentance requires a genuine conversion: You’ve understood the foolish or wicked things you have done, admitting to the harmful consequences of your action in the world and are demonstrating your new self.
When she apologized in congress, Greene admitted her failings, and said: “I never once said any of the things that I am being accused of today during my campaign. I never said any of these things since I have been elected for Congress. These were words of the past and these things do not represent me. They do not represent my district and they do not represent my values.” And she has managed not to say evil and incendiary things for a while, at least not since her swearing in a month ago. But what about showing us that she’s different now?
In her press conference, Greene expressed worry about the way our nation is divided. I believe there’s an opening there: She could, in fact, do Americans a great favor by showing a change of heart, by trying hard to listen and respond seriously to their concerns – all of them, no matter their political inclinations or priorities – not just dissing and dismissing those with which she disagrees, as she actually did.
A Christian apology would have acknowledged that she has said hurtful, dangerous things and fanned the flames of divisiveness. She would have vowed to act with compassion, looking around her to see which of her brothers and sisters were in need. Even now, she can do this: As a member of Congress, she has an opportunity to offer help, to extend olive branches across the aisle, to show some contrition. This might actually work to draw Americans closer, not push them apart.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is this: Red or blue, right or left, we need to recognize our personal failures to live up to the high standard that Jesus put before us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to pay attention to the least among us. It’s a standard that most religious visionaries in history agree on.
We must listen to the words of God in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn, then, and live.” (Ezekiel 18:30-32)