“It is what we do.”—Ash Wednesday in a Troubled America

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

For your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. 

— Psalm 32:4 [i]

Ash Wednesday is a border crossing. Our foreheads, like passports, are stamped with ashes, and we step bravely into the forbidding wastes of Lent’s strange land. By the time we reach the other side, we will be someone else. 

The Lenten journey is commonly viewed as a time of personal growth and transformation, a solitary immersion in the refiner’s fire, a testing and cleansing of our innermost heart. We learn to travel light, shed the inessentials. We face our demons. We renounce regrets and angers, and interrogate our desire. We listen patiently, till the Silence speaks. The desert saints, who fled the corruptions and distractions of the Roman Empire to meet God on open ground, modeled the classic regimen: 

“[G]et up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and commandment of God. Use great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress, be vigilant and pray often with reverence and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes… Do your work in peace. Persevere in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness, and in sufferings.”[ii]

This year, however, Lent’s collective dimension comes to the fore. The pandemic has made our social behavior a literal choice between life and death. Thoughtless selfishness about masks and social distancing, however trivial it may seem in the moment, may have murderous results. Necessity has forced us all to live, as Thoreau advised, “deliberately.” At the same time, climate change, racism, economic dysfunction and political crisis continue to issue their own relentless summons to collective conversion. 

Return to me with all your heart, says the Lord, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments.… Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people.…Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.” [iii]

These words of the prophet Joel, recited aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, seem so well-aimed this year. Although the United States is not the biblical chosen people, Joel’s words do hit home. Our toxic national quagmire should put us all in sackcloth and ashes, rending our hearts and crying “Mercy!” for 40 days of public atonement. 

It’s not enough to blame Trump, Hawley, Cruz, McConnell and rest of that sorry mob of schemers and traitors. However despicable their betrayals of democracy, however pathetic their black hearts and shrunken souls, those individuals are but the rotten fruit of our unaddressed national sins, what Martin Luther King called “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” [iv] The common response to the violent insurrection unleashed at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 has been a claim of innocence: “This is not who we are. And yet, in the words of one candid observer, “It is what we do.” [v]

Writing about coming of age during the Vietnam War, Patricia Hampl describes her attempt to identify with the American ideal rather than its present reality. Walt Whitman was her guide. “Out of the ashes of the Civil War … Whitman fashioned his thrilling American conception, …  envisioning a country full of charmed lovers with arms around each others’ waists.” Distressed by napalm abroad and civil strife at home, Hampl wanted to cling to America’s best idea of itself.

“I could escape American history which was a bad dream and enter the dream of America which I wished could be history. A sleight of hand, a last-ditch attempt to return to the purity of abstraction, to the Mayflower moment, the radiant arrival in paradise before anything had happened. Ourselves—but rinsed of history.” [vi]

No such luck. We the people can only be rinsed on the far side of the Lenten desert. For now, nothing but ashes, sand, and dust, as we endure our dryness with broken and contrite hearts, engage our demons without evasion or fear, renounce our innocence, and surrender to grace. 

Alleluias burned by worshippers on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, 2013.

Related posts:

Ash Wednesday: A Time for Self-Compassion

Is Holiness a Lenten Obligation?


[i] Daily Office Psalm for Ash Wednesday, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

[ii] The Apophthegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), in William Harmless, S.J., Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 199-200.

[iii] Joel 2:12-13, 15-17. This passage is one of two choices of Ash Wednesday texts from the Hebrew prophets. The other, Isaiah 58:1-12, is also a cry for collective repentance, adding a list of corporate sins well-known in our own day: injustice, oppression, neglect of the poor, hungry and homeless. 

[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr., from a famous sermon at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. The text (with audio) is here: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm  A superb article by Andrew Bacevich in June 2020 shows the continuing relevance of King’s sermon today: https://billmoyers.com/story/martin-luther-kings-giant-triplets-racism-yes-but-what-about-militarism-and-materialism/

[v] Mark Danner, “’Be Ready to Fight,’” New York Review of Books (Feb. 11, 2021), 4-8.

[vi] Patricia Hampl, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 49. Hampl is one of my favorite writers and storytellers. 

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

image

In Faith and Violence, a book published amid the political turbulence of 1968, Thomas Merton told an old Hasidic story about two men, one drunk and one sober, who were beaten and robbed as they traveled through the forest. Asked later about what had happened, the sober one described the violent encounter in vivid detail, but the drunken one seemed quite placid. “We’re all right,” he said. “Everything is fine.” Merton went on to observe that for some, faith “seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong.” But, he asked, is faith a “narcotic dream” or is it “an awakening”? Then he delivered his punch line: “What if we were to awaken to discover that we were the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves.”[i]

At a time when a brutal war was raging in the jungles of Vietnam, police and protestors were clashing in the American street, and leaders who spoke out for justice and peace were being assassinated, a monk dedicated to contemplative retreat from the world felt compelled to explore the theology of love in an age of violence, one which would “deal realistically with the evil and injustice of the world.”[ii] How do we resist the violence in our society without adding our own anger and demons into the mix? How do we resist systemic and social sin while harboring no illusions about our own capacities to do harm?

In recent days there have been numerous conversations about the escalating political violence surrounding the Trump campaign. My own post (March 12) on the topic has generated heartfelt responses of shared concern. Many of us are wondering what we can do about the situation without defaulting to our own versions of anger or fear. We need experienced guides through such tricky terrain, and Thomas Merton is one of the best.

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.”[iii] He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.”[iv] When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. The peacemaker is committed to communion as the nature and destiny of humankind. As Martin Luther King said in a speech I remember from my college days, we must see the face of Christ even in the police who are attacking us with dogs and fire hoses. Or as Jesus himself taught, we must love our enemies. That does not mean capitulating to evil, or abstaining from the tainted ambiguities of political conflict. But it does mean that we ultimately belong to a much better story, where one day the tears will be wiped from every eye, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the prodigal will be welcomed home. It means that our highest commitment is not to defeat our enemies but to make the divine love story of amazing grace come true for everyone.

As Merton wrote, “Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of [humankind]. It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of … the human family.”[v] This isn’t sentimental benevolence or passive submission. It’s a very tough form of love, as Jesus, Gandhi, King and many others have demonstrated in their costly commitment to a wider, more generous perspective than the self-righteous justifications of partisan interests. Our struggles must always reject the ultimacy of division in favor of communion. “The key to nonviolence,” Merton reminds us, “is the willingness of the nonviolent resister to suffer a certain amount of accidental evil in order to bring about a change of mind in the oppressor.”[vi]

But how do we apply this wisdom to the specific challenges of our own day? How can we respond creatively to the upwelling of anger, fear, racism and nativism poisoning our public life? In 1968, Merton compiled a list of principles for nonviolent resisters which is worth considering. While he admitted that the complexity and fluidity of events in that turbulent year could make any opinion lose its value in a matter of weeks, I believe his prescriptions retain an enduring value:

1) “be free from unconscious connivance with an unjust and established abuse of power”

2) “be not for [oneself[ but for others, that is for the poor and underprivileged”

3) “dread a facile and fanatical self-righteousness and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures”

4) demonstrate “a desirable alternative” to violence and injustice

5) use means which embody and manifest the emergent way of being which Christians call the Kingdom of God

6) be “willing to learn something from the adversary”

7) be grounded in hope and humility – what we strive for is a gift from God’s future: not of our own making, and not yet fully here [vii]

I particularly like Number 4 (demonstrate a desirable alternative) and Number 6 (embody and manifest the Kingdom of God). It is what we do in the eucharist, where everyone is welcome, everyone practices reconciliation, and everyone shares the bread of heaven. But can we take such countercultural vision into the street?

Yes we can. There are various ways (many of which have yet to be invented!). Even into her nineties, my mother joined the “women in black” every Friday in silent vigil against the Iraq war on the streets of Santa Barbara. Their faithful witness was impossible to ignore, while at the same time it perfectly embodied the peace for which they stood.

A very different display of visionary resistance occurred at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Advent of 1999. Those who watched the news only saw the Punch and Judy show of untrained police and young provocateurs turning a shoving match into a tear-gassed conflict. But the most important things that happened were not on television. This is what I myself witnessed on the day of the big rally and march[viii]:

There was a large banner which read, AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL. It seemed a perfect summary of the gospel: “If you do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” All in Christ, Christ in all. Solidarity forever. We were there to speak for all those whom the WTO would rather silence or forget – voices crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

At 12:30 pm, we took to the streets, marching up Fourth Avenue. to join the thousands more who were already downtown. It was a wonderfully diverse procession: there were people dressed as Santa Claus, sea turtles, trees, and even death. But it was not some crazy fringe out there. As one writer put it, “These were the kids at UW, the ladies from church, the guys at Boeing. It was Seattle that was marching this week.”

As in all street rituals, there was a playful, carnival atmosphere. As Richard Shechner observes in his book, The Future of Ritual:

“When people go into the streets en masse, they are celebrating life’s fertile possibilities…They put on masks and costumes, erect and wave banners, and construct effigies not only to disguise or embellish their ordinary selves, or to flaunt the outrageous, but also to act out the multiplicity each human life is…They protest, often by means of farce and parody, against what is oppressive, ridiculous and outrageous…Such playing challenges official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immortality.”[ix]

In other words, we were exhibiting the same spirit – dare I say “holy spirit”? – of playfulness, camaraderie, irony and subversion that was seen ten years ago at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall and, during biblical times, at the Red Sea and the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. And as faith tells us, the powers don’t stand a chance against the foolishness of God.

There were people on stilts, people carrying giant puppets, babies in carriages and elders with canes and walkers. I stuck close to the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, which played soulful New Orleans versions of “America the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” We all just danced up Fourth Avenue …

So, my friends, how shall we do the Kingdom dance in the year of grace 2016?

 

 

 

[i] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968) ix-x (All quotes from Faith and Violence are in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (New York: Orbis Books, 2002) under the entry on Merton’s book, but I have listed the original volume’s page numbers in the footnotes.)

[ii] ibid., 9

[iii] ibid., 159

[iv] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005)

[v] Merton, 15

[vi] ibid., 27-28

[vii] ibid., 21-25

[viii] From a sermon I preached the following Sunday at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church, Whidbey Island, WA (Advent II, 1999))

[ix] Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 46