Most of us, if not all, often understand the Lenten season as a season of purposeful “disengagement” – disengagement from sin that pollutes our bodies, minds, and hearts. We commend and applaud the effort of those who voluntarily, yet temporarily, forfeit certain ‘privileges,’ forgetting that the very act of forfeiting can be privileged in itself. There is, in more ways than one, a conscious effort to appraise one’s spirituality or religiosity and strive towards ordering that facet of life. In pursuing that end we tend to make the mistake of overlooking, belittling and retreating from the realities around us, thereby, making lent a season of altering lifestyles and ameliorating piety rather than questioning forces of death and affirming life.
Fasting, praying and repenting are what we do in this 40-day period. Right? Though this may be a loose perception of what lent actually entails or should entail, such deeds are nevertheless immanent to the season. Only try making the attempt to understand these virtuous demands in the light of the exploitation and mistreatment meted out to people on an hourly basis and it would take a new meaning altogether. Think about this: where does voluntary fasting (from food or anything else) place itself in the context of forced poverty? What do self-examination and repentance mean in the context of violence and suffering? Perhaps, lent should become a time of “engagement” rather than a time of “denial.”
Jean-Paul Sartre’s ethics of engagement, as T. Storm Heter puts it, “has three main conditions: awareness, responsibility, and respect.”[i] This ethic calls one to make a conscious effort to immerse oneself in all forms of injustice. Rather than retreating from it, we engage with it, for it is a “social virtue,” a “civic obligation,” but importantly, as I see it, a spiritual calling. To engage is to confront, question, and critique. But what are we to confront? Who are we to question and critique? We ought to engage with the coercive powers and the sins of the social, economic and political systems. The systemic sins such as elitism, militarism, casteism, xenophobia, aporophobia need confrontation. These aren’t political jargons; these are the forces that strangle people to death. Just look around. The ethic of engagement urges us to be aware of the systemic social evils and work towards eliminating them with a sense of responsibility and respect toward the other.
How can we not be disturbed by the murder of thousands of Syrians, the lynching of an Adivasi in Kerala, the brutal gang-rape of a tribal girl in Bengal, the gunning down of students in Florida? These are “sins” that we need to engage with. Are we paying attention to these evils amidst our busy schedule? Or are we conveniently reckoning them to be end-time events forgetting this involves real people with flesh and blood? Have we become immune and insensitive to such violence and hatred?
I am reminded of the famous song by Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind” whose words are poignant and poetic yet defiant and political. Though his answer is ambiguous, as it should be, the questions he asks are pretty weighty.
How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned?
How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head pretending that he just doesn’t see?
How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?[ii]
How many deaths must it take before we examine our own spirituality, the purpose of Lent? How much blood should be shed before we bend toward justice? God isn’t to be found in the holy of holies nor in the glories of heaven but amidst the suffering. If we cannot see God in places of torment, suffering with the poor, the weak and the hated, we’re pledging our loyalty to the wrong God. And if we see God suffering with the dying, and yet do nothing about it, we echo the insult of the thief on the cross: “Save yourself and us!”[iii]
We need to speak about it, write about it, and shout it out. We can no longer stay quiet. We can’t. To stay silent at the sight of injustice is to negatively contribute to injustice. To effortlessly and piously proclaim Jesus as the answer to all the evils around is to purge ourselves of the responsibility to act. To continue to observe lent having our lives at the center of our consciousness is to disregard the meaning of spirituality. If we are not disturbed, saddened or angered by the events taking place, our observance of lent is meaningless, our spirituality is a sham and it is better for us to fast from lent.
What then is our Lenten ethic – engagement or detachment?
[i] T. Storm Heter, Sartre’s Ethics of Engagement: Authenticity and Civic Virtue (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006), 103.
[ii] For the full lyrics of the song see, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bobdylan/blowininthewind.html.
[iii] Luke 23:39b.