The Language of Repentance in Asia

Peter Cook joined the senior staff team at St Andrews Cathedral, Singapore in 2015 following eight years of work in Thailand. Here, he reflects on the way repentance is understood by the many cultures that make up East Asia.

Singapore is a vibrant, city nation where east meets west: a melting pot of ethnic groups, languages, and cultures. The Anglican Diocese of Singapore embraces its South East Asian neighbours and their milieu of mission settings. In such an environment the ‘language of repentance’ needs to be discerned carefully so that the proclamation of the gospel may be heard and understood, otherwise the message to repent and believe is muffled or worse, distorted.

A western Judeo-Christian world view, with people having some understanding of God’s law and of sin as trespass, cannot be taken for granted. This is not the starting place for much of Asia and it cannot just be imported. For example, it will not do to stand on a busy street corner opposite the red light district in Patpong, Bangkok, shouting out the need to repent and escape judgement, as I have seen some aggressive western ‘missionaries’ do. The ones being shouted at certainly need to repent and turn from sin but the method by which they hear is going to need a far more nuanced kind of witness and language. The primary means by which the gospel is heard by such people is through loving care together with the slow business of building relationships of trust, from within which the gospel is modelled and embraced.

The language of repentance here is ‘incarnational love’ which lives with others towards holiness.

The Thai Buddhist culture operates from the framework of karma and of appeasing spirits. Repentance can easily be misinterpreted as a way of earning merit and used as a towards their own journey to enlightenment; it becomes a ‘work’ that they can do for themselves. Also, to talk to Thai Buddhists about repentance leading to eternal life is difficult since their aim is to journey to ‘nothingness’ and be released from life. So, if we are not careful, eternal life sounds to them like punishment! In our keenness for preaching repentance without engaging culturally we can end up turning people away from Jesus, rather than helping them to follow him. The language of repentance in this context is of ‘healing and fulfilment’ of karma; a process of steps and of relational and spiritual encounters.

Most non-Abrahamic faiths usually include forms of idolatry. Within the Indian / Tamil-language churches in Singapore this is very evident. Generally, devout Hindus worship many gods and for them to repent of all their practices in one act is a big hurdle. It also ostracises them from their families. In the call to salvation they are invited to consider their present lives and what Jesus wants to do in them. They are then quickly integrated into the family of the church and into a group where they can learn the truth about their former religious practices. Repenting from these takes time and they are taken through a process of renunciation. When I asked about ongoing (daily) repentance a pastor said: ‘We have to constantly emphasise the love of the Father.’ The language of repentance here is patient renunciation and God’s fatherly care.

In a conversation about communicating sin into the mixes of Chinese religious culture the pastor said: ‘How do I ask people to repent of something they do not consider a sin? So I tell them a story about a beautiful woman who has many boyfriends. But on the day she decides to marry one of them, she has to cut off ties with all the others. She can’t carry on going out with old boyfriends. She can’t keep pictures of old boyfriends in her home. She can’t even keep memories of them in her heart as this will hurt her husband and ruin her marriage. I find that non-Christians can understand such an analogy and know they must give up their idols and worship Jesus only. Then I can ask them about repentance – just as loving old boyfriends would hurt the husband, so too they must repent of having worshipped other gods.’ The language of repentance here is of embracing a new love and relationship.

Repentance of sin is fundamental for salvation and holiness in living. Repentance cannot be watered down but its language is varied. Its outworking is always shaped by the missional culture. It is usually communal, and a process. And it will always be costly, cross-shaped discipleship.

Written by Peter Cook