It’s Lent

Independence Pass, Colorado

It’s Ash Wednesday, March 6, and Lent is beginning. The Christian season of Lent has many meanings, but essentially it is a season of preparation, observed during the forty days leading up to Easter. Over the centuries, many Christians have chosen to make this a season of self-denial, mortifying their flesh in imitation of Christ, who, according to the Gospel, spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness just prior to his crucifixion.   Scroll to the bottom or click here to listen to the audio version of this post.

Although Christ did withdraw for a period of fasting and prayer, during which time he was tempted in the wilderness by a “deceiver” whose temptations he resisted, the larger purpose of Jesus’s spiritual retreat was to understand his mission on earth: how he should live the remainder of his days, what he had been put here to do.  In this sense, Lent is a season of spiritual renewal, or, as our dean has informed us in this week’s newsletter, ”Lent is Easter in disguise.” It’s a time to be revived, renewed, and rejuvenated. At least, I am approaching Lent as a season of renewal this year.

Specifically, I’m going to be reading a devotional booklet put out by an Episcopal organization called The Living Compass. The booklet is called Living Well through Lent 2019, and its overarching theme is Practicing Forgiveness With All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind. Although I’m using the booklet in printed form, it’s also available as a free downloadable PDF.  Or, you can sign up to receive the content of the booklet via email daily.  There is a Spanish-language version, too.  For more information about Living Well Through Lent 2019, go to the website, livingcompass.org.

The opening reflection for Ash Wednesday, written by the Right Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, introduces the topic of “extreme” or “radical” forgiveness. At the outset, she describes extreme forgiveness as a divine attribute. It is in the character of God to have mercy and to forgive every category of human sin. She then describes the case of Ms. Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who was subjected to Dr. Mengele’s eugenic testing. Late in life, Ms. Kor, who emigrated to the US, has chosen extreme forgiveness as a way to transcend the weight of all that she, and millions of others, suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Reverend Burrows writes,

Lent is our time to be intentional about taking stock of the most broken parts of our lives and our world as we seek forgiveness for our sins of omission and commission. It may be too much to imagine writing a letter of forgiveness to someone who has caused us pain or done violence to us. It might be beyond our fathoming to recount the pain, let alone forgive. It may seem too extreme. And yet . . . Jesus, who had an enviable well of forgiveness to draw upon even as he hung from the cross, continually calls us to the Way of Love and new depths of grace, mercy, and liberation. There are many paths to liberation, and extreme forgiveness is but one. However we get there, may this Lenten journey lead to the healing of ourselves and our world that allows resurrection, not evil, to be our defining story.

For each day of Lent, the booklet offers a brief written meditation on a different aspect of forgiveness as a concept and a process, and how the work of forgiveness can engage our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. The reader is then invited to write a response to each day’s reading. Here is my response to Reverend Burrows.

To be honest, I worry that thinking too much about forgiveness will destabilize me. It is a complex topic, embracing as it does sins of commission and omission (i.e., “things done and left undone”), as well as social wrongs for which we might bear complicity. Meditating on this topic involves dwelling on recent and perhaps slight hurts, as well as those that are more grave and may have occurred long ago. In addition, “practicing forgiveness” is an entirely different process, at first glance, than seeking forgiveness—the former involves giving pardon to someone who may have wronged me, while the latter involves being pardoned for something regrettable or damaging that I have done. The process of forgiving seems to involve almost godlike strength, but for that very reason promises to draw us into a new relationship with one another and with God. 

Many of my sins are those of omission, for I have often been indecisive, immobilized by doubt and fear: in a word, cowardly. I often wake up feeling awful about something decent that I just don’t have the nerve to do, or do yet.

 Finally, in thinking of forgiveness and those who have hurt me, I am struck by how few of those people have ever taken the initiative to acknowledge their injurious acts and how they wounded my feelings or inflicted tangible and lasting harm. But in the “practicing forgiveness” model, that doesn’t matter, because putting my finger on those hurts and proactively pardoning the people who inflicted them is all on me. When someone hurts me and doesn’t admit that or apologize, that leaves me feeling very small. So I get why Ms. Kor found that offering radical pardon to a Nazi perpetrator left her freer and lighter afterward.

Image: Independence Pass by Susan Barsy

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The Carnage on American Ground

Church is uncomfortable at times.  On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I went to church in the middle of the day.  The season of Lent was beginning: a period calling Christians back to the church and a deepening of their faith, a call that is not so easy to respond to, given that we are errant and have only a cloudy notion of God.

The sermon, which the bishop, Jeffrey Lee, preached, was about how our personal enchantment with the world leads to spiritual misery, characterized above all by our estrangement from human society.  (Lee spoke at length about Eustace, the fictional bad-boy of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who, in his eagerness to claim a great treasure found in a dragon’s lair, clasps a gold bracelet on his hand, only to find that his greed has transformed him into a beastly dragon, too.)  Christians may resolve to “give up things” for Lent, as is customary, but without divine grace we cannot restore ourselves, nor can we hope that such measures will bring us to a right relation with other humans, a relationship that we innately desire.

Which is why (here the bishop leapt to a startling conclusion) the Christian mission is inevitably collective.  We would be miserable even if we could attain salvation alone, but, as it is, we simply can’t.  Moving away from the wrong and toward the right involves turning from individuality and toward the common good.  It involves assuming responsibility for the many wrongs we witness each day.  Lee argued, for instance, that we, his hearers, were in some way responsible for the death of a respected police commander here in Chicago, who met his fate at mid-day Monday while trying to apprehend a convicted felon in flight after committing yet another crime.  The commander, who just a few minutes earlier had been on his way to a meeting at city hall, was shot dead in the stairwell of a downtown government office building.

I left church about 1:30, pondering how I could be responsible for this crime.  At about the same hour, I later learned, a crazed nineteen-year-old entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and ample ammunition, began shooting dead the youngsters, teachers, and staff inside.  After murdering 17 people, most of them in their teens, this ghastly creature slipped away to hide himself in the banality of a Walmart and Subway before being picked up by the police.

Fingers have begun to point, divisions to arise, as though this damning episode were a grand occasion for taking sides.  But we are all on one side in sharing the responsibility for crimes so deeply rooted in who we are, whose sources are not just individual, but moral, legal, political, and communal.  As inhabitants of a self-governing society, we are all responsible for the society we have.  When it comes to gun violence, every person of conscience in the US can rattle off what needs to be done.  That we fail to do it ranks as a tragedy, a national sin.

RELATED:
Mary Schmich on what Marjory Stoneman Douglas would have done (Chicago Tribune).

Pope Francis speaks; America dreams

Pope Francis speaks of American Dreams (screenshot), @2015 Susan Barsy
Pope Francis spoke to Congress in halting and heavily accented English.  His slow, thick cadence demanded utter silence.  For once, the government that talks of listening really was.  In this atmosphere of rapt attention, much emotion flowed.

The remarkable hype surrounding the pope’s address owed something to its novelty.  Here was a highly unusual interjection of moral consideration into institutional politics.  The pope is a teacher and gospeler whose authority is old and wide; he represents Christian thought as it has evolved over two millennia, from far before the birth of our American Protestantism; all which jibes uneasily with the secular, natural-rights foundation of our legislative government.  The Congress, mostly too curious to stay away, ostensibly has no need of persons like the Pope–or do they?

Francis’s remarks thoughtfully addressed the predicament of our politics, being inwardly eroded by the twin evils of narrow fundamentalism and moral indifference, while outside it witnesses the chaos that violent Islam is engendering.  The Congress is a sophisticated amoral entity, whose challenge is to act in a world that extreme religious passions are constantly agitating.

Francis used the theme of ‘American dreams‘ to recall the humane impulse that has been one of Western society’s glories.  The belief that all persons are equals, that all merit individual consideration, that all life demands respect: these ideals, deeply embedded in national history, continue to suggest a middle way of peace, generosity, and forbearance, that our atomized and materialistic society has lately been inclined to turn away from.

Many resist Francis’s call to end the arms trade, minister to the poor and friendless, respect the earth, and abolish the death penalty, though these flow from the most basic Christian teachings.  Others, though, will have quietly absorbed his remarks.  Will they be moved to create a more ‘modern, inclusive, and sustainable’ economy?

The Humanitarian Sensibility

woodcut of kneeling man in shackles
The humanitarian sensibility is the capacity to be moved by suffering we are not experiencing ourselves. It is especially remarkable when the suffering that moves us is remote, not present to our senses, but requires an imaginative empathic response.  The desire to relieve distant suffering or right abstract wrongs is an outgrowth of the humanitarian sensibility.  It is an active and extended form of charity.

The humanitarian sensibility is not innate–it is a product of culture, and not found in all societies, but where it is present it has profound consequences, both in the present and historically.  We can see it operating to various degrees in the Syrian refugee crisis, just as we can discern its utter absence in the perpetrators whose violence has led millions to flee Syria and its environs.  Historically, the humanitarian sensibility has powered innumerable movements, including the drive to abolish slavery in the Western world, beginning in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The humanitarian impulse, though not peculiar to the West, is a living expression of Biblical precepts and the natural rights tradition on which democratic government rests.  It carries the Biblical injunction to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ to its farthest possibility, leading Westerners to battle hunger and disease afflicting other continents, to give to Haitian disaster relief, to correct cleft palates and blindness wherever they are found, and to support female rights and rights activists like Malala Yousafzai.  The drive to minister to the world is noble, but it is not universally shared.  And in the US, we can see the limits of that sensibility, as when our government turned away children from Latin America, who came here seeking refuge from the violence and exploitation of the drug trade.

Image: from this source.
The emblem of the beseeching slave with the question “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
first gained circulation in the 1780s as the seal of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery in England.
The design was rendered in many forms,
on coins, in ceramic by Josiah Wedgwood, and as a woodcut, as here.
This powerful graphic appealed to viewers to look beyond differences of race and condition
to acknowledge the common humanity that linked free people with the enslaved.
This particular woodcut appeared on an American broadside to illustrate
John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 poem, ‘Our Countrymen in Chains.’