A Lenten Call to Pursue Justice

Ash Wednesday, 5 March 2003

One of today's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is Isa 58:1-12, which says in part:

Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord?

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 them naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [vv. 5-7]

Many Christians mark the beginning of the Lenten season by kneeling before a priest, pastor, or lay minister to receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads. The ashes symbolize humility and repentance, and they are an outward symbol of what should be an inward attitude. Lent is a time when we remember the sufferings of Jesus; we are reminded of our unworthiness to receive God's blessings, and we are called on to confess our sins and reform our lives. Lent can remind us that, like Jesus, other innocents suffer, and we must do what we can to alleviate their pain. We certainly should not be among those who inflict suffering, for if we do, instead of walking in the steps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa, we walk with those who beat him, spat on him, and cursed him without cause.

In the passage from Isaiah, the prophet accuses his fellow worshipers of hypocrisy and even rebellion against God, despite the fact that they were observing the external rites required for a prescribed fast. The problem lay not with the ritual that the people observed on the fast day, it lay rather with the lives to which they so readily returned following their fast. According to the prophet, their lives were characterized by "looking out for number one," oppressing their workers, quarreling, and striking "with a wicked fist." Fasting and its associated religious observances were wasted on such people. Those who really repented would have compassion for the poor, would care for the oppressed, and would oppose injustice wherever they saw it. Only those who observed the fast in this way would receive blessings from God.

I just returned from Honduras, where I learned that the economic problems that we've experienced in the U.S. have multiplied the economic woes of the people in that impoverished country. Jobs are harder than ever to find, and robbery and theft are on the rise in the cities. I found myself wondering, what would happen if we took the $50 billion we plan to spend on the war on Iraq and instead provided food and medicine to those around the world most desperately in need? What if we set up schools and training centers in Honduras to help people escape the cycle of poverty? What if we removed the yoke of national debt from the fifty poorest countries in the world? What if, instead of starving or bombing or shooting the children of Iraq, we fed and clothed and loved them?

A year and a half ago, during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslim leaders around the world, joined by many Christian leaders and people of other faiths, called for a moratorium on the bombing of Afghanistan, but the U.S. administration refused to alter its plans. Perhaps it is understandable that people with a background in Christianity fail to comprehend the offense that attacking during Ramadan caused, but can the same be said of failing to recognize the meaning of the Lenten season? In contradiction to the spirit of humility and repentance that Christians are supposed to adopt during this time (and indeed, at all times), will our "Christian" leaders brazenly launch an all-out assault on a country that has not attacked us? Will our nation continue to ignore the pain that its bellicose, confrontational policies cause to other countries, friend and foe alike? Will we turn a deaf ear to the growing chorus of nations pleading with us to pursue diplomatic solutions through the U.N.? Will we continue to bribe, cajole, and threaten our erstwhile allies, mindless of the overwhelming opposition to war of the vast majority of citizens in many of these countries? How many governments will fall, how many new terrorists will be recruited, and how many lives will be lost if we don't turn back from the brink of war?

It is our responsibility as Christians who take our faith seriously to model the spirit of humility and repentance and to urge those leaders who share our faith not to abandon it in pursuit of questionable goals. If Lent does not cause us to see the injustice around us and to cry out against it, we might as well wipe the ashes from our foreheads, rise from our knees, and arrogantly proclaim our self-righteousness to all who will listen. And while we're at it, let's hang out near the Via Dolorosa and see if there's anyone coming we can nail with a rock.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology