Biden should repent, New Testament-style. So should Trump. So should you. So should I.

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On the Oct. 17 edition of CBS’s “60 Minutes,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sat for an interview with Anderson Cooper.

Gates, a longtime member of Washington, D.C.’s military and intelligence elite, criticized both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden for mishandling the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Speaking specifically of Biden, Cooper asked whether the current president understands how badly he botched it.

“I’ve worked for eight presidents, Anderson, and I’ve never encountered a single one of them who ever said, ‘Well, I really blew that one,’” Gates replied, laughing. “Never. They just don’t do that.”

Assuming Gates is both honest and correct about that, and I suspect he is, our leaders might benefit from studying the spiritual principle of repentance.

For that matter, everyone great and obscure would benefit from such a study. Everybody needs to repent.

President, janitor, clergy, heretic, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Deist, agnostic, atheist—it doesn’t matter. If you’ve got a brain, much less a soul, you ought to repent, for your own good and the good of those around you.

For years, the word repent reeked to me of all manner of off-putting religious extremes. I grew up in a legalistic branch of evangelical Christianity where great emphasis was placed on our sins and their penalties and, consequently, on the necessity of repentance.

Repenting conjured in my head images of tent revivals, sawdust floors, dirge-like hymns and finger-wagging warnings that the flames of hell were lapping up around my ankles, ready to engulf me entirely if I didn’t publicly confess my wickedness, preferably with a great deal of tears and snot-slinging.

Rebellious by nature, I rejected the whole concept. Anytime I heard “repent!” I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists and shut down my brain.

Fortunately, I later learned that hellfire and self-flagellation weren’t usually what the writers of the New Testament had in mind when they talked about our human need to repent. (Being a Christian minister, I default to the New Testament as my urtext on such matters. Your choice of urtexts may differ.)

The ancient Greek word rendered as “repentance” in English is a compound word that literally means “mind change.”

To repent simply means to change your mind in a healthy and productive way. It doesn’t smell of anything except having the good sense to rethink your former assumptions about a subject, realize your errors and then adjust your actions accordingly.

It’s not even necessarily a religious thing. Sometimes you need to repent to God, yes. But you might need to repent to yourself for beating yourself down for way too long. Or to your grown kids for the loony theories of child-rearing you followed when raising them.

Without repentance, we undergo precious little emotional, moral or spiritual growth. To grow, we must be willing to change our minds, which in turn changes our behaviors.

On one level, repenting seems like the simplest, sanest thing in the world. For crying out loud, if we’re making bad choices, believing misinformation or enslaving ourselves to destructive habits, why wouldn’t we rush to alter our course?

But it turns out this is harder than it appears, and not only for presidents. Many of us find it mortifying to admit we’re wrong, even to ourselves, much less to others.

Repentance threatens our egos. It exposes us to attacks from our political, personal or religious enemies. It forces us to accept that we’ve hurt people we love. It’s hard.

We engage in all kinds of mental and moral gymnastics to avoid it. We don’t change our beliefs or actions in the light of new evidence; if anything, we double down.

Social scientists point to a phenomenon called confirmation bias. They say it’s rare for us to objectively weigh the facts about a touchy situation and then form an opinion, even when we claim that’s what we’re doing. Instead, we form our opinion first and then unconsciously manipulate the evidence to fit what we’ve already decided to believe.

When former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell died of Covid-19 despite being fully vaccinated, his body was barely cold before Democrats were hailing this as proof everybody should get vaccinated to protect immunocompromised people such as Powell and Republicans were railing that his death proved how worthless vaccine mandates are.

Identical event. Diametrically opposed conclusions. You have to assume that for both sides the issue was settled before Powell even got sick. If his death caused anybody to entertain second thoughts, you couldn’t tell by listening.

Repentance, properly perceived, helps break this ridiculous cycle.

It asks each of us to become that humble person with enough moxie to admit, “You know, I used to believe this thing with all my heart. But evidence and hard experience have taught me I was wrong. I apologize.”

That’s someone with a message powerful enough to improve the world. Or at least the course of his own life.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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