The Woke Non-Gospel at the Chappelle Netflix Protests

I awoke this morning to a protest video. A friend had forwarded a video of yesterday’s demonstration outside Netflix’s head office in LA. Employees walked out, joined by plenty of others, to protest comedian Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix standup special. Supposedly, Chappelle’s routine is transphobic. Of course, every protest draws a counter protest, and so other people turned up to support Chappelle and Netflix, holding signs saying things like “Jokes Are Funny” and “I Like Dave”.

The video, embedded below, shows one lone pro-Chappelle counter-protester having his sign torn down, before being crowded out, and having one anti-Chappelle protester repeatedly yell “REPENT MOTHERF***ER!” in his face. This is NSFW, obviously:

Now, there’s a lot happening here. My immediate thought was “Pythonesque”, and I’ve already seen others say the same. The lady with the tambourine would be played by Terry Jones of course, a la Mrs Cohen in The Life of Brian. My personal highlight was the guy who wrestled the sign down, tore it off the stick, and then yelled (in deadly, unironic seriousness) “he’s got a weapon!” Absolute comedy gold.

Now, cards on the table: I don’t find Chappelle funny. I don’t find American stand-ups funny in general – they’re usually just blokes shouting (which explains why Will Ferrell is the comedian America deserves, but not the one it needs). Bill Hicks is an exception (in the sense that he doesn’t shout, not that I find him funny). But as the English stand-up Stewart Lee said, wouldn’t we all just love to be dead Bill Hicks and have our entire career judged on two hours of material?

So this is not me trying to defend Chappelle per se. I’m also not trying to weigh in on the free speech issues, the power of a big company like Netflix, or anything like that. 

What caught my eye (and ear) was that shouting protester: “REPENT MOTHERF***ER!”

That is, obviously, religious language. Repentance is the message of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:1). He came proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3; Mk. 1:4). Christ says the same (Mt. 4:17), adding “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). 

The command is, at first, one of condemnation: only sinners need to repent. And it’s accompanied by harsh words at different points too. John calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” when he commands them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Lk. 3:7-8). Jesus denounces whole cities who won’t repent (Mt. 11:20), and tells his disciples to “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against” towns who don’t repent (Mk. 6:11-12).

I can’t find anywhere where John or Jesus call someone a motherf***er though.

Despite the condemnation necessarily implied by a call to “repent”, the call was given so that its hearers might be forgiven, and become part of the kingdom of heaven. However harsh the condemnation, there is a guarantee of true forgiveness and acceptance on the far side. And there is nothing so belittling and targeted as “motherf***er” attached to it.

Now, watching that protest video, I do not get the sense that there would be forgiveness in store for that guy. What would they do if he dropped the sign and admitted he was wrong? Do you really think he’d be embraced with open arms, like a prodigal son? I find that hard to believe when someone’s been shaking a tambourine in his face and calling him a word my mother told me never to say. 

He’s told to “repent”, but not “repent and believe”. The protesters shouting him down have no Gospel for him, no baptism for the forgiveness of sins. 

If he did admit he was wrong – either right then and there, or some time after – what would they have him do? My guess is, an endless amount of things to atone for his past transgressions and wrongthink – and none of them would ever be enough, because he was once on the wrong side of the picket line. Experience teaches us that already. If you were once on the wrong side of the T in LGBT, then nothing will ever be good enough.

And that means that what that tambourine-lady wanted wasn’t repentance at all.

The definition of “repentance” arguably lit the touchpaper of the Reformation. The root Greek word for it is metanoeō, which literally means “to have a changed or new mind.” It therefore relates fundamentally to an inward change, not an outward act.

However, the Latin Vulgate (the 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible by St. Jerome, which became the official Bible of the Catholic church for a millenia) badly mistranslated this word, with disastrous consequences. Then, when Desiderus Erasmus produced his new version of the Greek New Testament in 1516, the inadequacy of Jerome’s translation was exposed. Diarmaid MacCulloch (a Catholic historian), describes the whole thing:

Erasmus hugely admired Jerome’s industry and energy, but his work of retranslation and commentary amounted to a thoroughgoing onslaught on what Jerome had achieved a millennium before. To attack Jerome was to attack the structure of understanding the Bible which the Western church took for granted. Most notorious was Erasmus’s retranslation of Gospel passages (especially Matthew 3:2) where John the Baptist is presented in the Greek as crying out to his listeners in the wilderness, ‘metanoeite’. Jerome had translated this as poenitentiam agite, ‘do penance’, and the medieval Church had pointed to the Baptist’s cry as biblical support for its theology of the sacrament of penance. Erasmus said that John had told his listeners to come to their senses, or repent, and he translated the command into Latin as resipiscite. Indeed, throughout the BIble, it was very difficult to find any direct reference to Purgatory, as [Eastern] Orthodox theologians had been pointing out to Westerners since the thirteenth century”

– A History of Christianity, London (Penguin: 2009), p.596

This wasn’t the sole cause of the penance system, but it provided its key (supposed) scriptural basis after the idea had begun to catch on.

Awareness of this mistranslation and its consequences is what lit the fire under Martin Luther, and formed the basis of his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. That’s obvious in the first three theses:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [poenitentiam agite] (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

Luther progressed very swiftly in his understanding of grace and the Gospel after 1517, and so these theses are not his last word on the subject. But we can summarise the settled Protestant position on repentance like this: “repentance” is an inward change, which will always necessarily result in outward fruit. “Doing penance”, however, is a fruitless task. True repentance is guaranteed to receive true forgiveness. Doing penance, however, had no such guarantee. Repentance is Gospel. Doing penance is law.

It was fascinating to me that that anti-Chappelle protester chose to yell “REPENT!”, of all things. It is self-consciously religious, especially when accompanied by the almost shamanic shaking of her tambourine, as if to exorcise a demon. 

And yet when you’re adding “MOTHERF***ER!” to the end of your altar call, my guess is you don’t have Good News or forgiveness of sins waiting for those you’re addressing. Rather, you have an endless, inescapable purgatory in store for them.

That lady was not really yelling “REPENT”. She was yelling “DO PENANCE.” Do penance, and believe nothing, for the kingdom is at hand but guess what, you’re not gonna be in it.

Do penance, motherf***er. 

She may be a protester, but she ain’t no Protestant.

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