Including “repentance” in this title might lead you to believe that it is a theological reflection of some kind. After all, repentance is a religious word, is it not? And it is not a neutral religious word either. No, “repent” does not show up as any kind of feel-good call to action. Rather, it adorns the posters carried by Westboro Baptist Church types or it trips off the lips of TV evangelists whose faces gleam red and neck veins pulse as they shout out the imperative.

But, in fact, while repentance is a theme found in many of the world’s religions, it has a more pedestrian meaning (literally). Repentance is about changing course, about walking a different way, about turning from—and turning towards. And while Jesus himself told people to repent, some theologians suggest that even his use had a more “political” meaning than we typically acknowledge. Here is Anglican theologian N.T. Wright’s take:

Consider, for example, the Jewish aristocrat and historian Josephus… who was sent, in AD 66, as a young army commander, to sort out some rebel movements in Galilee. His task, as he describes it in his autobiography, was to persuade the hot-headed Galileans to stop their mad rush into revolt against Rome, and to trust him and the other Jerusalem aristocrats to work out a better modus vivendi. So, when he confronted the rebel leader, he says that he told him to give up his own agenda, and to trust him, Josephus, instead. And the words he uses are remarkably familiar to readers of the Gospels: he told the brigand leader to `repent and believe in me’… (N.T. Wright, 2000, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is)

Wright goes on to point out that the idea of repentance for Josephus and Jesus had to do with giving up certain ambitions (especially violent ones), turning away from the conventional wisdom about how the world works, and seeking a new path.

In early 2003 the United States was heading to war. You didn’t have to be particularly smart to realize that the rush to war was built on a lie. You didn’t have to be a student of foreign policy to realize that it had to do with maintaining U.S. hegemony in a part of the world that contained the oil to which we had become addicted. You did not have to be a literary scholar to realize that this war was also simply the retelling of an age-old tragedy about the overreach of power and the unquenchable thirst for vengeance.

Something told my wife and me that this war was being fought in our name. Something else told us it was being fought to maintain a petroleum-drenched lifestyle to which we had become accustomed. And so we started talking about turning away. We never talked about “repenting” of the path we were on, but we did talk about changing course.

And so we did.

We sold our car. We were not trying to make a statement. We were only trying to do something within our power to say that we aspired to living differently—eschewing violence and the subjugation of others so that we could have our luxuries. It was a symbolic act only in that we knew that our lifestyle change would have very little impact on our nation’s decision to go to war. But while it held some symbolic value, it was mostly about repenting—about choosing to go a different way. Indeed, we did not talk about “symbols” in the sense that we wanted to make a “point.” Rather, we talked about the automobile as the symbol of so many things we had come to hate about the lie that some refer to as a dream (yes, I said hate).

Though we could not even articulate it then (and can barely articulate it now), we knew that the car was really about autonomy, about community-killing individualism, about a fundamental disrespect for the value of place, about endless consumption without a thought for the backs upon which that consumption was built. And so we started turning around. We started repenting.

I say “started” because we could not have imagined then how the turning would continue and continue and continue.

At each turn, a new reality was exposed—a new reality from which we also had to turn, from which we had to repent. For example, we never suspected the role that the automobile plays in enhancing hyper-consumption. Once we no longer had a car we started reflecting more on consumption. Once we started reflecting on consumption we started to realize that the thing we consumed most—food—was mostly being produced, packaged, and shipped using unsustainable processes from far away. Once we started thinking about eating sustainably we started thinking about farmers and farming families in our area—their needs, their challenges. Once we started thinking about farmers, we started thinking about whether we cared enough about them as people… And on it went. This is just one example of a vector along which our turning led to a further need to repent.

Once you start turning, new things come into view and new perspectives challenge your way of seeing and being in the world.

That is why I think of these 10 years as a long repentance. The repentance has touched almost every area of our lives. Without a car we had to think differently about assuring that our children would be successful.  In our university town parents push their children to “build” resumes starting at an early age.  This involves signing children up for all kinds of activities—from sports, to dance, to language classes, to test preparation classes, to… You get the idea.  The “over-programming” of a child for success is not possible without the means to rapidly transport her to all these critical activities.  When we sold our car we sat our kids down and said “you are going to have to choose a few activities to get involved in and get yourself to and from them.”  They accepted.  Frankly, I think they were relieved. Today they are responsible adults and anchored within their communities.  Not having a car helped us to repent of a certain concept of “success” that probably was not terribly healthy for our kids.

Living without a car made us start thinking about living within limits—about committing ourselves to our community. When we sold our car we started hearing from friends and more distant acquaintances and they almost always said pretty much the same thing: “We think what you are doing is important.  We want to participate.  We can’t get rid of our car(s) just now because (…), but we want to be part of what you are doing.  How might we do that?”  Suffice to say that the exploration of “how” they and we might do that led to many deeper discussions about many things and relationships both broadened and deepened.  We made new friends—many of whom we now count among our dearest. The repentance here had to do with turning away from the superficiality that characterized many of our relationships.

Now I know what you are thinking: “It was a CAR, Robb, just a damn car! It’s not as if God appeared to you in a burning bush!”

You are correct. It was just a car. Just a means of personal transportation. Just a thing.

But sometimes when you repent about a little thing like a car, the repentance snowballs and you lose control (in fact, I have thought a lot about repenting of being in control). Is this a bad thing? I can say with absolute clarity that not only is it not a bad thing but it is one of the best things I have ever had the chance to experience. For in “turning away” you also, always, “turn toward” something else.

We have learned to turn toward things like having more time, having deeper relationships, not being ruled by the clock, not having to compete, consuming less (but better), being healthier, learning to be truly at peace—the list goes on. Turning to things like these makes the long repentance an adventure—a constant discovery of a new life with a new kind of expectation.

Yeah, it was “just a car.”

But…

Here’s to 10 years of repentance.

17 COMMENTS

  1. You didn’t use the word “moral,” but this reminds me that I sometimes make a nuisance of myself by telling people that every choice we make is a moral choice, including the choice of whether to take the chocolate chip cookie or the raisin oatmeal. Sometimes the choice turns out to be an act of repentance.

  2. Dear Mr. Davis–Mazel tov! In radically different circumstances, I, too, as a young father abandoned the automobile (just plain had to–could not conceivably afford one), and I think it helped orient me and my daughter, at least, toward life ways that have been of lasting value. Now a grandfather, I have a car again, but every day I don’t use it is a good day, I say. Many of the other things of which I repented I have not slid back to.

  3. Mr. Davis: I think you and your wife have actually begun living the dream, which (it turns out) is nothing more or less than a simple, human life, a life worth living and worth sharing. In that spirit, I hope you won’t mind if I share your article with as many people as I can.

  4. Mr Shifflett – these have been years of much growth. I would encourage you to share this article with others and am always happy to discuss “practical” issues related to living car free (the first question most people ask is “How do you do your grocery shopping?”). My email is robbbike@me.com.

  5. I was thinking of how I have spent half or more of my adult life without a car – generally not being able to afford it. I have a car now, and I’m planning on attending trade school in August. The idea was to move to a suburb 15 miles from the school, since it is in a suburb next to the violent neighborhoods of north Minneapolis. Now I might go to a trade school in downtown Minneapolis or Saint Paul. I will keep the car and buy most of my food direct from farmers. (westonaprice.org) I already live in a liberal ‘burb in an uber liberal state, so that is nothing new. I’m planning to become a machinist, so I will still use lots of oil, but hopefully not so much. And maybe I’ll live in more of a community, in the city, for the rest of my time in Minnesocold.
    As an aside, industrial hemp can produce 300 gallons of hemp diesel per acre. No I’m not a hippy, or pothead.

  6. Dear Marcus W–I did not know that about hemp. One more reason to lift the ban on hemp growing. And yes, I was a hippy, sort of, for about half a year in 1968, but never a pothead (the stuff nauseates me–literally). Welcome to the Twin Cities, and may you prosper.

  7. I loved this little essay, Mr. Davis; thanks very much for sharing it. I suppose I loved it in part because it both encourages and chastens me. My wife and I was spent some years consciously attempting to live more simple lives, and restricting ourselves to only car, and with our resulting family choices and student activities and whatnot being therefore frequently limited by what we can do with bicycles and walking, has been a major part of it. But you’ve gone a step beyond what we have managed, and I admire you for it. Kudos!

  8. The difference between what you did and those who self-consciously go about “making a statement”, is rather obvious. Those who “make statements”, aren’t really serious, and don’t last. True repentance lasts.
    Not according to MY will,
    Fiat voluntas tua, domine.

  9. Well … OK. Just wondering how the farmers got their vegetables to that farmer’s market you walk to. Cars or trucks, perhaps?

    Not that I think going without a car lacks a certain value. Russel Kirk was right to call the automobile a “mechanical Jacobin”. But it isn’t at all clear to me that most people, or even many people, have some sort of moral obligation to forsake the automobile. If that’s what you are suggesting.

  10. Seems to me that what is being suggested is that if you can forsake the automobile, it’s probably a good thing to do so. The case is more ascetic than legalistic, I’d say.

    I did a similar thing with TV a dozen years ago or so. I had gotten divorced and moved into a small apartment. We had always had cable TV, but for some reason when I got the new place I never signed back up for it. As time went by I found I didn’t miss it much, and now, some 13 years later, I’ve not gone back. I watch a lot of movies, new and old, and some of the better British TV series, but that’s about it. I’m saving a fair amount of money, and reading a lot more than I ever did before.

  11. Jeff – I do not think people have a moral obligation to forsake the automobile. At a certain point we became concerned about the kinds of things it “enabled” that were not healthy for us or our children (I think I laid some of them out). At the same time our car seemed like such an essential, non-negotiable, part of our lives that it seemed silly to even consider parting with it. In the end, giving it up was a surprising and liberting experience.

    We have never asked the same of others nor do we feel they are wrong not to do so. The point of the essay is that giving up something even as essential as an automobile (in our case) leads one’s life in new directions that one could not have imagined. Rather than narrowing our horizons, it opened them up.

  12. One more thing, perhaps of particular interest to “porchers” is that our decision positioned us to engage more deeply in our “nearby”. Since we were now “constrained” to live closer to home we actually discovered our place in it it in ways we had never imagined possible.

  13. I don’t think of this at all as symbolic. Everything begins with thought and intention — and every thought and intention has an effect. Action based on intention has an even more powerful effect.

    Emerson gave his first sermon as a Unitarian minister at a church in Waltham, Massachusetts — about five miles from where I live. His subject was “Pray without Ceasing”. 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “It is not only when we audibly and in form, address our petitions to the Diety, that we pray. We pray without ceasing. every secret wish is a [kind of] prayer. Every house is a church, the corner of every street is a closet of devotion.” . . . “Every desire of the human mind is a prayer uttered to God and registered in heaven.” And then he went on to say that we receive what we pray for (as he said not in this sermon — but later: “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping, we are becoming”).

    This is a very sobering philosophy. Everything we do — everything we think, matters.

    But it is the actual motivation for the action that drives the result.

  14. I haven’t ever abandoned the automobile. To me it isn’t just a thing, but a piece of productive property and a tool which makes my business possible (much like a computer, which is another tool which my business cannot do without).

    I have however gone for months giving up the automobile for little routine things we all take for granted, and keeping it for those things where it is really required. This means walking to the grocery store once a day. It means walking the kids to school and home. If eating out, walking to the restaurant. I could do this in a small town. I would still of course drive the few miles to my parents’ house once or twice a week, and would drive to those customers I had that were more than a mile or so out. But what I found was that in general the car got used maybe six times a month. Interestingly for me, choosing not to use the car I had was easier than choosing to sell it. One little decision following another instead of a single large decision that would require rethinking how my business could operate.

    So while I won’t say my experiences are the same, I think I may have had a small taste of the difference and it is an incredible difference. One sees the world differently when one is on foot. Everything from watching larches in blossom to seeing exactly what everyone had in their gardens…. Things that we don’t see from the car when we are merely in transit from one place to another. Walking is a much more rich experience.

    I am now in a city bigger than any in the US (Jakarta, Indonesia), where some means of transportation is required and where I drive a car on average 3 times a day. The schools my kids go to are big and they are not in walking distance. I still try to incorporate walking into my life but it is remarkably difficult. Yes, I could probably walk to the grocery store and it is about the same distance. No, I am not sure that is safe given the traffic.

    How we travel determines how we see life. Do we look at it from the viewpoint of standing on the earth? Do we look at it from the back of a horse or from a moving bicycle? Or do we just keep an eye out for hazards as we drive our cars in the city?

  15. Wonderful essay – one which captures my own experience in redefining my relationship to the automobile. Unlike the author I at first believed the claims about WMD. When it sank in I began to ask, “Was the war really about oil?”. Then I asked, “Was the war about oil for me?” I saw I had a choice. Suddenly I found myself living 50 minutes to 1-1/2 hours from Madison (depending on season, snow, etc.) rather than 12-15 minutes away. Few things have opened my eyes as much.

    I have not entirely forsaken driving. Cars are wonderfully useful when used with care and in moderation. The tragedy of our time is that care and moderation are specks in the rear-view mirror for most Americans.

  16. Pragmatism is the answer.

    Selling one’s car, and forsaking the use of a car is about as useful as selling one’s toaster oven. The difference it makes may well bring feelings of good and wellbeing, but those manifestations are only in one’s head. I think a more pragmatic approach is more beneficial. For example, I sold off the big SUV V8, and muscle car because I felt dirty and efficient owning and using them. I opted for the bottom of the line, no frills Toyota Yaris; a small 4 cylinder economy car. It allows me to transport myself and my family anywhere we care to go, but in a way that provides a very small carbon footprint. Since owning the Yaris, we are mindful of using it economically, and there are many ways we do this, which I’ll not go into here, because the point of my ramblings here are that there is a happy medium between having a huge carbon footprint and selling one’s vehicle.

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