Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Prelude to Ash Wednesday


Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—-a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!...Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Joel 2:1-2a, 12-13

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51:1-2

So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the justice of God.
II Corinthians 5:20-21

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Matthew 6:16-18

On the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday signifies a 24-hour period of time dedicated to repentance through fasting, weeping and mourning. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a 6-week focus anticipating the death and resurrection of Jesus. This opportunity to reflect and grieve assumes that we worship a God who is characterized as embodying "steadfast love" (hesed in the Hebrew over and over and over in the Hebrew Bible) and tender mercy (although, certainly, God does get angry...wouldn't we expect that from One who yearns for justice and peace in a world of injustice and violent solutions?).

Repentance (metanoia in the Greek), in 1st century Palestinian Judaism, was a call to "turn away" from other counterfeit ways of being the people of God. When John the Baptizer stood on the shores of the Jordan River, proclaiming "Repent and believe," he was calling fellow Jews to turn away from narratives that were too accomodating to the Roman Empire (the Herodians) or too violent (the zealots) or placed too heavy a burden on the poor and vulnerable (scribes and pharisees) or too removed from everyday life (the Essenes).

In the Hebrew sense of the word, metanoia signifies a call to confess all the ways that we have been complicit (mostly unknowingly) with political, social and economic injustice. It reflects the yearning of the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos, etc) who called Israel away from systemic unfaithfulness, oppressing vulnerable people groups like the orphan and widow and immigrant, in a quest to create a society of economic exploitation, political elitism and religious legitmation that benefited those at the top. Jesus followed this "prophetic script" by announcing the long-awaited kingdom of God which was characterized by nonviolent resistance, enemy love, forgiveness, equitable distribution of resources and inter-ethnic (Jew & Gentile) empowerment. Jesus and his disciples proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God which began with repentance, calling Jews and eventually Gentiles to be reconciled back to God and to each other. "Ambassadors for Christ" proclaim and embody God's way of justice in our broken world and invite others to be a part of a reconciling people who live alternatively to the Domination System of revenge, competition and gross indifference. Where might we be in need of repentance on this Ash Wednesday 2010? Where have we been complicit with the Domination System?

This kind of self-reflection will demand a more holistic inventory of what the Bible calls "sin." The American obsession with the autonomous individual tends to shape us in ways that calls attention to personal failings like cheating, adultery, fraud, various addictions, mistreatment of others, lust, pride, gluttony, etc. These are, no doubt, ways that we may be counterfeited and dehumanized and we can use today to examine these "transgressions" and call upon God's mercy to "blot" them out.

However, if we look deeper into how we are all socially formed, how systems shape us, then we can see more clearly how we have been victimized by the Powers (media outlets, government, family rules and corporate advertising/lobbyists/lawyers) and how we, unknowingly, keep the cycle of abuse and destruction going. Race and human sexuality are two systemic issues that are overlooked by white, heterosexual men like me. I invite you to read Chauncey DeVega's recent post entitled What If Sarah Palin Were Black? and reflect on ways that whites continue to experience "privilege" in our culture. Gay marriage continues to be a controversial issue in California and nationally as well (don't forget that the Defense of Marriage Act in 1999 limits rights of gays and lesbians who are legally married in the US or elsewhere). Christian clergy are teaming up with other spiritual progressives to bring marriage inequality to light and put it on the radar in congregations. Many church leaders feel trapped in complacency because they are not empowered by a larger movement to put gay and lesbian issues at the forefront of political conversations. Check out Believe Out Loud here.

In addition, the immigration issue continues to lurk in the political background as the Democratic Congress attempts to revive health care reform and the GOP Congress says "no" to everything in sight. Study after study is exposing just how nonsensical the talk about "illegal immigration destroying our country" really is. The Wall Street Journal and The CA Immigrant Policy Center are just two organizations to help us filter out the urban legends (like "illegals are destroying our schools and health care" and "illegals are stealing our jobs") from the real facts.

Race, sexuality and immigration are the tip of the iceberg. We can lament our unwillingness to or ignorance of the resistance that is demanded of disciples of Jesus in regards to torture, the degradation of women, the wastefulness of natural resources (oil, water, timber, etc) and stripping of human dignity for the homeless, jobless and prisoner.

As we bow before the cross of the vulnerable, gentle, courageous, compassionate, humble, prophetic Jesus of Nazareth, let us fast these next 24 hours for our own complicity in the Domination System that he came to bind and break and for our oppressed and marginalized brothers and sisters who continue to be left behind by the promises of the free market and the bloated military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about almost half a century ago.

*The painting at the top of this post is Youth Mourning (1916) by Sir George Clausen. It was a response to the loss of his daughter's fiance in World War I. Youth is personified in the woman bowing before the cross, mourning the loss of a whole generation of young men on the battlefields of Europe.

--Theological Autopilot

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