This Lenten season, amid political attacks on women, the environment, labor, and immigration rights, some Christian leaders are raising questions about what traditional Lenten values — such as repentance and the “mortification of the flesh” — might look like when applied to this national moment.
Can Christians observe Lent in a way that ties social justice consciousness to spiritual Lenten practices of repentance, resistance, and solidarity? The curators of four social media campaigns — #LentenLament, #LentLite, #EmbodiedSolidarity, and #DetoxifyChristianity — are exploring what this looks like in public. “What does it mean to come together, to lock arms together, to really just stand in the gap for people?” Alicia Crosby, executive director of the Center for Inclusivity and co-curator of last year’s #EmbodiedSolidarity campaign, asked.
Crosby has wrestled deeply with this question ever since she followed the much-publicized firing of Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins, after Hawkins’ donning of a hijab in inter-religious solidarity put her tenured position in peril.
On Ash Wednesday 2016, the date of Hawkins’ formal departure from Wheaton, Crosby and other faith leaders launched a Lenten Fast of Embodied Solidarity, using a Facebook group and Hawkins’ #EmbodiedSolidarity hashtag to share support, challenges, and Lenten reflections with participants eager to envision a similar bodily solidarity for their neighbors.
This year, Crosby is taking time to recharge, center, and plan protest actions that will continue year-round. She says she hopes to launch local and national actions with other faith and justice activists, wielding art and writing, “direct-action and ritual as an act of resistance.”
Many Christians “mindlessly go about Lenten rituals,” without ever really considering the privilege inherent in their “sacrifice,” Crosby said. Despite popular calls to “give up social media,” Crosby points to its “life-giving” nature for those who need to stay apprised of state acts, including deportation raids and police killings.
This is resistance work that seminarian and musician Matthew David Morris says must continue well past Lent and Holy Week, as “a natural extension of our life of prayer and worship as Christians.”
Morris’ local congregation, Saint David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, Ore., is facing these questions deeply right now, as they seek to protect undocumented community members amid an uptick in ICE raids in the Pacific Northwest.
For Morris, a liturgist and praise leader, prophetic resistance is always connected to the life of worship. Morris believes in the ancient Christian tenet of lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief. What we pray is what we believe – and what we worship concretely informs our defiance, survival, and justice work.
“This political moment demands that we strip our altars of the American flag and turn away from the idolatry of patriotism, capitalism, and white supremacy. We gotta get real about who — or what — we’re worshipping,” Morris said.
Repenting, and Reconstructing
Not long after November’s election, Lutheran theologian Tuhina Rasche says she felt called to pursue justice work outside of her capacity as a parish pastor. She is now serving as theologian in residence at Saint David of Wales.
“Serving in the whitest denomination in the U.S., I felt there was much work to be done to tell the truth about white supremacy,” she said.
Rasche said this political season has made “the rhythms of the liturgical calendar feel much more intense … there is something far more incarnational about Advent and Lent; waiting, hoping, anticipating, as well as grieving, lamenting preparing for death, and desperately clinging to the hope of new life in resurrection.”
Her convictions led her, and project partner Jason Chesnut, to extend their popular "F*** This S***" Advent devotional to also feature Lenten reflections, calling the campaign #LentLite. The devotional has sporadically featured various meditations on the significance of this season in light of Lenten values, prayer and resistance, and recent attacks upon trans, Muslim, immigrant, and women’s bodies.
“I suspect Jesus is at work,” reads one author’s reflection on hope amid hate crimes. “My unintentional Lenten discipline is noticing it.”
Disconnecting from social media can feel impossible or uncaring when every day might bring fresh horror. How do you step back and recharge without stagnating into paralysis? How can you stay updated to the tumult of the news without letting it overwhelm or burn you out?
“People seem exhausted to a degree that I haven't seen before,” said Morgan Guyton, a Methodist pastor. While Lent is supposed to be a time to “unplug” from all that is life-sucking, Guyton says in the midst of a Trump presidency, he is convinced that this year Lent “needs to be about lament rather than the privileged, privatized ‘unplugging’ that I'm used to.”
So Guyton has paused blogging, is trying to center spiritual practices, and is curating a weekly Facebook Live discussion series called #DetoxifyChristianity. Through inviting predominantly LGBTQ people and people of color to share their ideas, the campaign “seeks to provide an alternative perspective on components of Christian teaching like salvation, holiness, and worship that have been corrupted within the American church.”
Through these virtual conversations, Guyton, Crosby, and others hope to speak against feelings of isolation and hopelessness that otherwise, Crosby believes, can go unnamed in faith spaces. “The uniqueness of this project,” Crosby says, “is that it encourages us to lean into faith while considering what needs to be purged and what needs to be reconstructed.”
Holy Texts, Historical Texts
Last year, pastors Erina Kim-Eubanks and Dominique Gilliard went on an immersion trip to Ferguson, Mo., with a cohort of local clergy seeking to connect their faith with specific resistance work. After their experience, participants were determined to explore ways to practically further the work of reparations as an expression of Jesus’ love. These conversations also raised other concerns. “We realized that for followers of Jesus to truly pursue reparations, we need to first build common memory to acknowledge what has been broken, and name what is in need of repair,” Kim-Eubanks said. Without this shared remembering, said Gilliard, “we cannot collectively discern what a historically, and theologically, faithful response to social sin entails.”
Kim-Eubanks and Gilliard created the Lenten Lamentations devotional as one medium through which this common memory might be enfleshed. “By creating it to coincide with the Lenten season, a season when the church is already pressing deeper into reflection, restraint, and repentance, we hoped that this resource could help Jesus-followers engage our nation's history … an engagement of the heart,” Kim-Eubanks said.
Using the hashtag #LentenLament, the pair share public liturgies designed for individuals and faith communities to read or pray aloud. Daily prayers of repentance accompany reflections on Scripture, a relevant image, and an incident of violence from that day in history. The devotional has framed violence quite broadly, centering civil rights martyrs, lynchings, forced sterilizations, anti-immigration laws, chemical warfare, and other atrocities.
Kim-Eubanks says that “lament allows us to directly experience the suffering, evil, violence, and injustice that pervades our nation's past and present, in a way that prepares the way for Good Friday and Easter. By reminding us of the forces that executed Jesus, it also grants us a deeper longing for the hope of Christ's victory and resurrection.”
Rasche, reflecting on a similar sense of hope, said “#LentLite … reminds me there is life after the tomb in this Lenten season. The election of Trump created an apocalypse, that the world could be truly seen for what it is: beautiful and shattered.”
In light of this, Rasche says, “we can be open with our struggles with doubt and hope … Lenten practice showed me that for which my heart yearns.”