Lent and resistance in troubled times
Many Christians throughout the world are observing Lent, traditionally a season of spiritual reflection, self-discipline and repentance. At the same time, in the USA, parts of Europe and beyond, narrow nationalism, hatred of minorities and anti- democratic ideologies have been on the rise. So has opposition to these forces.
At first glance these may seem far removed. Extra prayer, donating more to charity or giving up chocolate or alcohol will not obviously stop attacks on the rights and even safety of those most at risk. Yet there may be lessons to be learnt, even by people who are not especially religious. For Lent is both personal and political.
It is based on Jesus' forty days and nights in the desert as described in the Gospels, at the start of his ministry. During this time, according to these accounts, he undergoes great hardship and temptations from Satan – but set against the backdrop of a reminder of the brutal realities of state power.
In Luke's Gospel, the ordeal in the wilderness takes place in chapter 4. In the previous chapter, Jesus is baptised by his cousin John the Baptist, whose call for sharing by the better-off and end to abuses by agents of the state are part of his uncompromising message. This will lead to his arrest – and, later, his execution.
When Jesus leaves the desert, he courageously returns to the area where John had taught and begins his own ministry, which will make him too a target for the political and religious authorities.
The forty days and nights echo the prophet Elijah's forty days and nights in the wilderness, when he is on the run for the ruling family (1 Kings 19.1-18). There he is fed and given water by God's grace but feels desperate and alone, until he encounters the Divine. He is given strength to return and anoint a new king, a subversive act.
Elijah's ordeal in turn refers to the forty years in the wilderness of Moses and the Hebrews, newly freed from slavery through God's might, told in the book of Exodus. There too their resolve is tested, their weaknesses exposed.
Alone and famished, Jesus is tempted to follow the familiar patterns, wielding economic, religious and political power in ways that will end up being oppressive, even diabolical. Now as well as then, it is easy to gloss over what is wrong with the world as it is, give up hope or lapse into a self-righteousness that can be destructive.
However there is a different path, even if this leads to the suffering and apparent defeat of the cross, before the forces of death and destruction are overcome. Lasting joy and freedom can be found, but not through a quick fix.
That Lent has some political aspects is widely recognised, even in churches that often conform to existing structures. Isaiah's teaching on false and true worship and fasting is often used in services (Isaiah 58.1-12):
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins...
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist...
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly...
For some, this is a call to activism. Yet Lent is a reminder that contemplation too is needed, time and space to try to be honest with oneself at least about the failings of oneself and the groupings of which one is part, as well as seeking to imagine, and prepare oneself for, a different future.
This may require solitude as well as sharing with, and learning from, communities of resistance. People of faith might say that there is also a vertical dimension and even those who are not religious might recognise the value of humility and openness, willingness to connect with what is beyond immediate consciousness.
So Lent is an appropriate time for those seeking a more just and caring world to try to look unflinchingly at the difficulties of the current situation and the context in which these have arisen. This includes recognising the ongoing economic and social oppression and alienation which have led some people to turn to leaders with even more harmful policies.
The wilderness is not usually a comfortable place to be. Yet it can open up paths to deeper truth and transformation, both personal and social.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.
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