The season of Lent, which has typically been a time in the Christian calendar for repentance and self-denial, is fraught for me. I’m supposing it is also complicated for some other women, people of color, LGBTQ persons, and members of other populations that have routinely been told to deny, mute, or stymie themselves in order to make space for others. In itself, the self-denial involved in fasting and repentance isn’t any more difficult for these demographics than I imagine it would be for others. Each one among us needs a season to be introspective, to reassess our priorities, and to turn away from roads we’re on that might lead us further from our values or spiritual end (telos). The difficulty lies, rather, in the fact that for many of us, the season of Lent seems to last all year long. We are routinely aware of our limitations and mortality, denying our own desires so that others might act, staying silent so that others may speak, assessing whether we are taking up enough or too much space, and consciously controlling our responses to micro-aggressions or small acts of disrespect that deny who we are. So when the season of Lent comes along and we are encouraged to take a look at our lives and “give something up,” my visceral reaction is to roll my eyes and keep moving. Not a great look for a minister and theologian, to be sure. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that reaction and the reasons for it, because they are legitimate and are likely to be shared by many.
I am reminded of Traci C. West’s insightful analysis of the ways that that Christian practices can reinforce or change the values of Christians’ lives in her chapter on “Liturgy” in Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006). She argues that “the rituals of Sunday worship enable Christians to publicly rehearse what it means to uphold the moral values they are supposed to bring to every aspect of their lives, from their attitudes about public policy to their intimate relations” (112). While these rituals are intended to uphold the Good, Beautiful, and True there is good reason to think that some of these rituals may actually reinforce the opposite.
For example, West suggests that white supremacy could be reinforced in predominantly white worship settings by “liturgical pronouncements by white congregational members about their special status as God’s people” (121), such as “this is the word of God for the people of God,” which is often repeated after scripture readings. Messages like this invest in white dominance and “function in a ritualizing manner, creating new adaptations to social changes in economic conditions or in response to varied forms of anti-racist resistance” (123). In another example, West points to the ritual of communion, asking whether it encourages “whites in taking for granted the suffering of others, and maybe even the deaths that benefit them (whites)” (124).
West’s analysis is significant for our reflections on Lent, since it speaks to the ways that the Christian practices involved in Lent might reinforce a culture of self-sacrifice on the part of some and dominance on the part of others. Because Lent occurs in the period before Holy Week, it is tied to Jesus’ suffering and death. Those who participate in Lent easily transfer the suffering and death of Jesus that occurs at its end to the kinds of self-denial and self-sacrifice that Christians are asked to participate in during Lent. The result is that self-denial and self-sacrifice become moral values in the Christian life. These values, however, can result in “a kind of liturgical reinscribing of the privileges of whiteness” (124), as well as other privileges congregants may enjoy, such as male, CIS gender, or straight identities, “possibly fostering a lack of concern for the systemic ways they may benefit from the sacrifice of the health, safety, and well-being of ‘alien others’”(124). Moreover, when congregants themselves are actually those “alien others” who find themselves participating in rituals of self-denial and self-sacrifice during the season of Lent, they may be participating in the very ritual reinscription of white, male, CIS, straight privileges that they might otherwise want to struggle against.
Despite my initial eye-roll, I am not drawing on West to suggest that Christian communities should give up their Lenten traditions. I agree with West that “Christians cannot abandon their own rituals” (127). Instead, we need rituals that work in liberative ways. West’s focus on particularity rather than universality might offer one way to both keep the calls for repentance and self-awareness that are integral to the season of Lent, and also to consciously resist the kinds of privilege that are tied up in typical calls for self-denial and self-sacrifice. She notes that “a universal call for repentance from ‘our’ complicity in sinfulness may help to reproduce injustice rather than repair it. These appeals to universality lump what it means to perpetrate or benefit from sinful acts together with what it means to be ‘the sinned-against’” (138).
To remedy this situation, Lenten calls for repentance could benefit from a heavy dose of particularity. Perhaps if such calls were not issued as universal appeals for repentance from a universal sense of sinfulness, but identified the particular ways in which people sin against one another and the earth, then the season of Lent could become a more liberative practice. For example, Pope Francis has recently asked Christians to “give up useless words, gossip, rumors, tittle-tattle and speak to God on a first name basis.” He specified, “We live in an atmosphere polluted by too much verbal violence, too many offensive and harmful words, which are amplified by the internet.” By calling out this specific aspect of many people’s online lives, Pope Francis is not only highlighting one particular kind of sin about which one might need to repent during Lent, but also allows for empathy for those on the receiving end of offensive and harmful words.
With a few weeks of Lent to go, perhaps we might refocus our attention from human sinfulness and self-sacrifice writ large, to particular practices that could help to dismantle white supremacy, resist heteronormativity, and challenge systemic sexism.