I was sitting in church last Sunday. Episcopal Church — I’m Mormon, but let’s just say I have a complicated relationship with Christianity, particularly my own church. So I was in an Episcopal Church, because a pastor I follow on Twitter was preaching that day.

He preached a lovely sermon. But it was a little prayer we spoke aloud after the sermon which really got me. These are the words we spoke together, as tears formed in my eyes:

“God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil which enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
Forgive, restore and strengthen us
through our Savior Jesus Christ,
that we may abide in your love
and serve only your will. Amen.”

Now, I don’t know much about angels and devils or cosmic justice or a higher purpose. Life can be pretty random. But this prayer touched me — “the evil which enslaves us,” both that which we have done and that which is “done on our behalf.” When our countries go to war, when our cities oppress minorities, when our communities ignore the poor, when our churches refuse to perform LGBT marriages, we are not necessarily guilty, but nonetheless that evil is done on our behalf. So — “Forgive, restore and strengthen us”. Yes. Strengthen us, that we may fight against that evil and make a better world. Restore us, because in that fight we will inevitably fail and must get up and fight again. And. Forgive us.

Forgive us? Why? Perhaps if there is an afterlife, it makes some sense — we must be redeemed by the blood of Jesus, or the mercy of Allah, or some other cosmic power, so that our sins can be wiped away and we can live happily in the afterlife. But even those who believe in an afterlife seek forgiveness and redemption when they do not believe they are in the wrong. We want to redeem the past — say sorry to those who feel wronged, seek apologies from those who have wronged us, when the past is gone and cannot be changed. Why?

When I was 17 years old, I got called into the vice principal’s office. He gave me a firm handshake and invited me to sit down, set his glasses aside, looked me in the eye. The reason I’d been asked to come down, he said, was that they had found a lunch bag with my name on it in the lunch room.

I looked at him, somewhat bemused. I remembered the incident. A day or two before, I’d been eating lunch with my friends; in a playful moment, one of them wrote my name on their empty lunch bag and placed it defiantly on the table. It might have been Kevin — he was always the funniest one — at any rate, I laughed and told him I wasn’t going to clean up his mess. So we left it. It was inconsiderate to the janitors, and a violation of the rules, true. But it was nevertheless amusing that the vice principal felt the need to get involved. It tells you something about how uninteresting my high school was.

Still, the vice principal was serious. He asked if I had anything to say for myself. I told him that a friend had done it as a joke, he asked who the friend was, I laughed and shook my head, he asked again. I wouldn’t tell him — justified or not, it felt like something that should stay between friends.

So the vice principal told me that someone had to pay the price for the negligence, and if I wouldn’t say who it was, then it would have to be me. I remember thinking, “Is this really the hill I want to die on?”

I suppose it was. I did a week of lunch cleanup.

What really interests me about this story, however, is the vice principal’s commitment to the past. I’m fairly certain he believed me — believed that I didn’t leave the bag in the lunch room. But in his mind, someone had to pay the price for the crime. It’s so human, this obsession with the past, with atonement for the past. With redemption.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Avengers: Endgame. I admit I sometimes find my culture’s passion for superhero movies a little absurd. But not this one. It is extraordinary. I think it’s partially because it deals with this central human need for redemption.

In an earlier movie, the Avengers failed to stop the bad guy (Thanos). As a result, half of life on earth was ended. People lost family, friends, pets, even gardens. All the superheroes who didn’t die were miserable. Some of them kept working, some of them gave up on avenging, but all of them were haunted by their failure. Is that rational? Perhaps. We cannot change the past, so from the standpoint of pure logic it makes no sense to obsess about it.

But we do. You, and I, our neighbors and our enemies, almost everyone obsesses about the past. Nostalgia for the best times. Pain for the worst. Guilt for the mistakes. Joy for the love we once had. Sorrow at its loss. It is one of the most human things about us — animals don’t sit around in armchairs talking about the good old days or lie in bed depressed by failing to save the world from Thanos. Only humans do that.

So, in the film, some guy shows up and has an idea for going back in time to stop Thanos. It’s a little silly, as the characters admit multiple times. Yet how could they resist it? Because part of obsessing about the past is believing in redemption — that the wrong we’ve done can be made right, that bad things can be made good, that mistakes are not permanent. Sometimes that belief is almost as absurd as the idea of going back in time to stop Thanos. When things go wrong, we generally tell each other to move on, that the past cannot be changed. Yet we still want to make it right.

It’s a superhero film, so you can imagine how it ends. It’s still worth seeing.

What does it look like when someone doesn’t want to make the past right?

Like every American high school student, I read The Great Gatsby. I remember enjoying the book, well enough, but I don’t think I really appreciated its brilliance. Particularly its writing. I went back to it a few weeks ago and read it in 3 days, devoured it, captivated by the absurdly poignant descriptions of faces, voices, moments.

The characters are brilliant as well. The book is about Jay Gatsby, true, but there are two characters who appear nearly as much as the title character and perhaps shed some light on this topic of redemption: Tom and Daisy Buchanan. They are a counterweight to Gatsby in the book — well bred, respectable, utterly grounded, utterly miserable. If Gatsby is lost in the past, they are completely unmoored from it. After a horrific series of events, the narrator muses, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

So disgusted is the narrator by the behavior of Tom and Daisy that he quits New York altogether and heads to his boyhood home in the Midwest. Wouldn’t we do the same? Someone so completely unconcerned with redemption makes us uneasy. They are not quite human.

The worst part of this all-too human drive is that redemption is not always possible. I stayed four months in Mexico, a few years ago. I had been sent to teach workshops on job-hunting skills and to take distance-learning courses on Mexican culture and history. I learned a good deal more.

I had just been through a breakup, a significant one. I had agonized over whether to proceed with the relationship for months, had hurt the woman with my comments, had opened up gaping wounds of self-doubt in myself, and had ended by announcing a breakup so final it shocked us both. To make things worse, I arrived in Mexico with rusty Spanish and a co-teacher who knew how to take life easy — hardly an attitude I appreciated at the time.

As a result, I felt alone for much of the summer, obsessing with the past, rethinking everything — my mistakes, my doubts, my fears. One morning I left early in the morning to visit a family which had befriended me and invited me to their daughter’s middle school graduation. They lived in a small town far outside of the city, and with unreliable public transportation I gave myself plenty of time to arrive. But everything went smoothly, so I found myself stepping off the bus in the town before sunrise and unable to call on my friends for at least an hour.

I wrapped my jacket around me to keep off the chill and looked for somewhere to go. The town was built on a hill. At the top of the hill, surrounded by houses, was the town cemetery, decorated in bright colors and scattered with flowers as many Mexican cemeteries are. I suppose it felt like an appropriate place to think, in my state of self-doubt and loneliness.

Sunrise in the cemetery. Mexico.

Under a tree, on the top of that hill, I watched the sunrise creep up Popocatepetl, the great volcano of the central Mexican plateau. I thought about the decisions I had made, the past which I would never get back, and a great feeling of helplessness swept over me. I realized that I would probably never fully find redemption for all my foolish decisions — some, perhaps, but not all. The girl would move on, and so would I, and we might be happy in the future, but the pain of the past would not entirely disappear until our memories abandoned us.

Does that make sense? I wasn’t reconsidering my decision and hoping to together in the future. It was the past which obsessed me. I didn’t want the past back, I wanted it changed. I wanted redemption. But in that moment, I realized that redemption was not guaranteed. And I cried.

We repent of the evil which enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
Forgive, restore and strengthen us

In the rare moments of real connection with other people, when I have opened my soul to them through some miracle of timing and conversation and they have opened theirs to me, I have felt that everyone in the world carries this prayer in their hearts. It is phrased differently everywhere, and for many of us it is not directed to any specific god or power. But we carry it with us nonetheless. Forgive us. Redeem us.

We obsess with the past. With a lunch bag. With Thanos. With a breakup. And we need redemption. But so often, it does not come. Our best efforts to atone for the past, “for the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf,” are often insufficient. And we cannot spend all our time trying to atone for the past, for there is still a future to be lived! Families to care for, food to put on the table, sunsets to enjoy, friends to comfort, boring meetings to endure — to live in the past is to live only half a life.

Still, if it obsesses us, perhaps there is a reason for it. If past and future are inseparably bound, then facing the past might allow us to fully face the future. It may be personal — a wronged loved one, an unfinished project — or communal — racism in the United States, homophobia in Christianity. We give and seek forgiveness, admit our mistakes, restore justice, seek redemption, that we might face the future together. Stronger. One human race, united. Redeemed.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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