Lent begins with the shattering of our complacency or it does not begin at all.
For this reason prophet Joel gave us ‘what for’ on ASH Wednesday. The “fierce urgency” of his tone was to wake people up. To wake up a people living in denial of death about to engulf their world. This death was the consequence of forsaking the life-giving ways of justice, mercy and humility. Especially justice, mercy and humility in relation to the most vulnerable of society – contained within the vulnerable Trinity: widow, orphan and foreigner. Due to the way society was set up socially, politically, economically and theologically, these three groups were the easiest to exploit, scapegoat, demean and get away with it.
Too often we only wake up when the consequences of our complacency threaten to catch up to us. At this late stage it is difficult to see a way out and easy to be overwhelmed. We can move from denial (there is no problem) directly to despair (the problem is too big).
Realising this, Joel invites us to trust that “even now” we can act. In this we are invited to occupy the arena of perhaps. Perhaps, is filled with spacious possibility. Perhaps declares the future is not finitely fixed and therefore there is hope.
Once our complacency is shattered and we overcome the temptation not to act, we face temptations on how we will act. Regardless how well-meaning we are, our action can deepen the problem rather than bring relief. As Jesus’ wilderness wrestling reveals, the devil is in the detail of our actions.
The first temptation is to think we can bring authentic change without the transformation of the human heart that caused the problem in the first place. For example, we fall to this temptation each time we think technology will save us. The lie within this promise is that we can have change without actually changing ourselves. Lasting change demands we actually change.
The second temptation is that our relationships with the Divine, each other and creation are to rest on a quid pro quo formula rather than on grace and the gratitude and generosity that flow from grace. In the quid pro quo world the priest tells us who is in credit / debit or who is saved and who is not. It is a segregated world that states some are worthy while others are not. This world view is often what stubbornly validates structural injustice in the world. In the world of grace the priest reminds us who we all are…beloved. All are beloved and therefore all are worthy of love.
In a quid pro quo world we are only as good as our last deal. And so our third temptation is the need to prove ourselves over and over again. To prove ourselves by promoting and protecting ourselves. This poisons our action with a self-centredness and self-righteousness. We use false categories, like health and wealth to show we have sufficiently proved ourselves, while poverty and sickness are proof we have failed. Suffering becomes the sign of failure and thus God’s forsakenness. The ultimate aim of one’s life is then to avoid suffering at all cost. The fear of suffering limits our loving. Justice and mercy no longer set our true north and we are soon lost, having turned inwards. In seeking to save our lives we lose them. Suffering is not to be sought after for it carries no merit in itself. However, suffering as a consequence of resisting systems that are neither just nor merciful is the clearest sign of faithfulness. The Cross is a sign of such faithfulness.
As a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine many have rightly spoken up with fierce urgency at the complacency and hypocrisy of too many of us regarding other invasions in recent history. Racism has again been exposed in how the suffering of white people is more acutely felt and covered by the media than the suffering of black people. Instead of this truth silencing our opposition to Putin it should provoke us to raise our voice “even now” (especially now!) against all invasions and permanent occupations. This complacency and hypocrisy is clearly seen in relation to Apartheid-Israel (underpinned by USA money and military) and Palestine. I mention this in particular because of how so many Christians are not only complacent in the face of Palestinian suffering but actively endorse Apartheid-Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and subsequent violent oppression of Palestinians. Believing the violent occupation is a biblical blessing blinds them to the truth that God has no favourites and deafens them to the Hebrew prophet’s cry against those who turn justice back by acting inhumanely. No one. No one. No one. Gets a free pass to act inhumanely.
God have mercy on us … who struggle to live mercifully in relation to all our sisters and brothers.