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?[i]
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, or retreating from the realities around us, thereby, making lent a season of solely altering lifestyles and ameliorating piety rather than questioning (our privileges in the light of) the injustices around us.
While fasting, praying, and repenting may be a loose perception of what lent actually entails or should entail, such deeds are nevertheless immanent to the season, and in some sense rightly so. However, try making the attempt to understand these virtuous demands in the light of the exploitation and violence meted out to people on an hourly basis and it would take a whole 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? How symbolic an act is placing ashes on our forehead when people quite literally are being reduced to ashes?
Jean-Paul Sartre’s ethics of engagement, according to T. Storm Heter, calls one to make a conscious effort to immerse oneself in all forms of injustice. [ii] Rather than retreating from it we engage with it, for it is a “social virtue” and a “civic obligation.” To engage is to confront, question, and critique. But what are we to confront? Who are we to question and critique? The powers that be and the systemic sins such as elitism, militarism, casteism, xenophobia, aporophobia, and islamophobia need confrontation. These aren’t political jargons – these are the forces that strangle people to death, literally.
How can we not be disturbed by people’s love for hate, the murder of innocent Muslims in New Delhi, the increasing rise of fascism across the globe, the continous suffering of Palestinians and Kashmiris, the violence meted out against Dalits, homelessness experienced by the poor and people of color, the persecution of refugees and immigrants, and the valorization of men and their prowess? These are the “sins” that we need to engage with, and repent of. I pray we don’t conveniently reckon them as end-time events forgetting this involves real people with flesh and blood. I pray we don’t become immune and insensitive to violence and hatred. Should not lent then become a time of purposeful engagement even as we distance ourselves from things that have occupied a significant place in our lives?
Yes, we need to introspect and evaluate our lives and our privileges, but we must also speak out about the injustices that are strangling people to death, people everywhere and not just our own. We can no longer stay quiet. To remain silent at the sight of injustice is to indirectly contribute to injustice after all silence is just as much a political stance as speaking. 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? To effortlessly and piously proclaim God as the answer to all the evils around is to purge ourselves of the responsibility to act. If we continue to observe lent having our personal, individual lives at the center of our consciousness, if we are not pained or angered by the increasing death toll, our observance of lent is meaningless and our spirituality is a sham.
What then is our Lenten ethic?
[i] The ethic has three main conditions: awareness, responsibility, and respect. 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 each other. 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.