C.S. Lewis for Ash Wednesday

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The idea of national repentance seems at first sight to provide such an edifying contrast to that national self-righteousness of which England is so often accused and with which she entered (or is said to have entered) the last war, that a Christian naturally turns to it with hope. Young Christians especially-last-year undergraduates and first-year curates- are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England. What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine. Most of these young men were children, and none of them had a vote or the experience which would enable them to use a vote wisely, when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?

If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society. When we speak of England's actions we mean the actions of the British government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England's foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbor; for a foreign secretary or a cabinet minister is certainly a neighbor. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing-but, first, of denouncing-the conduct of others.

--C.S. Lewis, "Dangers of national repentance"

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch Year / Liturgical SeasonsLent* TheologyAnthropologyEthics / Moral TheologyPastoral Theology

5 Comments
Posted February 13, 2013 at 5:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Thanks for selecting this insightful quote, Kendall.

As always, C. S. Lewis demonstrates how an orthodox Christian can show fresh and creative ways of communicating old truths.  This is the sort of brilliantly perceptive and marvelously lucid exploration of the sinful depths and self-conceits of the human heart that marks much of his inimitable writing.  His grasp of human psychology and how easily we fall into self-deception and temptation is perhaps best reflected in his classic Screwtape Letters, which would make admirable Lenten reading for those who haven’t read it in a while.

David Handy+

February 13, 10:41 am | [comment link]
2. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

The date of this oeuvre is March 15, 1940. The final sentence is also very apposite for Lent:

A group of such young penitents will say, ‘Let us repent our national sins’; what they mean is, ‘Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.’

February 13, 11:52 am | [comment link]
3. Undergroundpewster wrote:

I always thought that any act of national repentance should include the leader of the nation rending his/her clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes, and promising to return to following the commandments of God. 

That hasn’t been tried in modern times as far as I know.

February 13, 12:35 pm | [comment link]
4. C. Wingate wrote:

Well, there is the case of Willy Brandt and the Warschauer Kniefall.

February 14, 1:17 pm | [comment link]
5. MichaelA wrote:

“The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing-but, first, of denouncing-the conduct of others”

Sounds very attractive!

February 14, 6:25 pm | [comment link]
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