By Meredith Minister
This semester I have been teaching Comparative Religions, a class which looks not only at the worldviews and texts of the world’s major religious traditions but also at the practices of these traditions. A few weeks ago, we talked about ascetic practices and we defined these practices as the attempt to remove focus from oneself in order to redirect focus toward something else. While different religious traditions make competing claims regarding where focus should be directed (God and the prosperity of other humans or sentient beings are the most common directions), the season of Lent in the Christian tradition marks a space on the calendar where Christians intentionally turn from themselves and redirect their focus toward Christ.
The season of Lent, therefore, often provides an opportunity for ascetic practices such as giving up particular food items – meat, chocolate, or coke – or media – TV, cell phones, or Facebook – for a specified time period. Unlike the Hindu ascetic who has held his arm in the air for 24 years in a state of permanent asceticism (those of us in Comparative Religions this semester were particularly impressed with this feat), the season of Lent offers a marked timeframe for asceticism culminating in union with Christ.
This timeframe is modeled on the forty day period Jesus spent fasting and being tempted in the desert and, in most Protestant traditions, begins with Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. Although there are technically 46 days counting Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, six of those days are Sundays and understood as a kind of Sabbath or day of rest. One can, according to Christian tradition, be too ascetic! As it is modeled on a period of Jesus’ own asceticism, some think of Lenten asceticism as a time to share in the suffering of Christ who not only suffered by fasting in the wilderness for 40 days but who also suffered on the days which we commemorate near the end of Lent – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Is Lent, therefore, a time to glorify suffering in the name of following Christ and achieving union with God? Although movies such as The Passion of the Christ are popular around the season of Lent and glorify the excessive suffering of Christ, Christ did not suffer excessively because suffering is a good thing in and of itself. The suffering of Christ, rather, was a by-product of Christ’s obligation to redeem the world.
Rather than interpreting Lent as a time to glorify suffering, I want to challenge those participating in Lent to think of it as a period that focuses on suffering not in order to glorify it but in order to end it. In this sense, Lent may be a time for contemporary American Christians to “make foolish the wisdom of the age” (as Paul suggested in 1 Corinthians 1:20) by accounting for and even refusing to engage in practices that exploit and marginalize others. Such a proposal challenges us to go beyond individualistically giving up chocolate or TV and, rather, suggests that Lent is a time for actions that foster union with Christ by promoting the well-being of others. The act of causing oneself to suffer through whatever means necessary does not, in this interpretation of Lent, bring us closer to Christ but suffering as a by-product of promoting the well-being of others may. What might this type of suffering – not suffering for the sake of suffering but suffering toward the goal of the well-being of others – look like?
Americans have a tendency to act like self-made individuals but think for a moment about who made the clothes you’re wearing or the phone in your pocket; where did the food you will eat at your next meal come from? Many of us have been introduced to the idea that Americans may benefit from someone else’s exploitation but we choose not to think about it because, frankly, it challenges almost every aspect of our lives and is, therefore, too painful. As an alternative, those of us who like to think “progressively” jump on boycotting bandwagons. For example, after reading the recent reports on the practices of Apple-supplier Foxconn Technology, we may refuse to buy Apple products. Such a boycott is well and good – we should refuse to buy the products of a company that exploits its laborers – but we deceive ourselves if we think that we can avoid benefiting from the exploitation of others by only refusing to buy Apple products. The exploitation of others is, frankly, built into the fabric of our lives. By using the period of Lent to reflect on and, perhaps, disengage from these practices, we engage not only in a devotional practice that benefits us as individuals but also in a social action that benefits the entire community. This Lent, let us not suffer in vain but toward the goal of bettering the world.
Meredith Minister is the instructor & visiting scholar for the Institute for Discipleship.