Widening the Horizons of Lent
Sin and Repentance through the Gaze of World Loyalty
Krista E. Hughes
Lent, at least officially, is the Christian season of honest and humble self-scrutiny. Beginning with Ash Wednesday’s bracing reminder that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” and culminating on Good Friday at the foot of the cross, the liturgical season of Lent invites us to turn inward and to question our usual ways of being in the world—the narratives we tell about ourselves and others, the decisions we make day to day, the values we actually live by rather than those we espouse. Lent is a time to examine consciously and to see clearly, however uncomfortable the view. Accordingly, the Christian symbology of sin and repentance looms large.
This Lenten emphasis on sin and repentance both draws and repels me. It repels for the obvious reason that it is never pleasant to confront the ways we fall short and do harm… not to mention that it is mightily difficult to change entrenched or unconscious habits and perspectives. On the other hand, despite the discomfort, I know I need to do precisely these things. Just as covenants serve to hold us during hard times when we might act more selfishly than lovingly, liturgical seasons like Lent call us to do hard things that we might otherwise avoid, even if we know better. If the spirit of Lent is working within us, we will be simultaneously drawn and repelled.
And thus even as someone who is not particularly active in the church, my desire for Lent is strong. In fact, I cannot truly celebrate Easter if I do not participate in Lent. There are years (and this is one) I actually crave the season of Lent because I feel an intense need for something larger than myself to call me beyond myself. The older I get, the more I become aware of my passive participation in and my active contribution to systems that deny other creatures lives of dignity and flourishing. And yet: though increasingly, viscerally aware of these things, life is busy and full of demands. It is all too easy to simply attend to the daily to do list. Lent urges me to slow down. To open my eyes and to look around me with greater care. To listen. To inquire. To confess. To consider how I might live differently. To set intentions to do so. Mindfully.
This desire to be called into myself for the sake of moving beyond myself is often frustrated by how Lent tends to be preached and practiced by most Christians however. Undergirded by classic liturgies and hymns that focus on individual sinfulness and Christ’s sacrifice “just for me,” Lenten theologies and practices seem to suffer from both excessive individual self-interest and a lack of world loyalty. Together these yield a liturgical season that, contra Lent’s very purpose, jumps too quickly to what theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes as cheap grace.
Cheap grace at its most blunt is the conviction that because God has forgiven and redeemed me once and for all my actions do not really matter. “Lucky me! I can do whatever I want to!” may express this in a caricatured form, but the subtler manifestations are pervasive: namely, when the pastorally reassuring message that we cannot do it all—“and that’s okay; we don’t have to”—is interpreted as an excuse to do nothing. Christians are especially at risk for this because the human condition is portrayed in highly individualistic terms. Confession, forgiveness, and redemption are cast as matters of the individual believer. In fact, because the Christian imaginary tends to emphasize individual salvation, even weekly confession, performed corporately and using “we” language, strikes an individualist tone.
This works in tandem with an understanding that the sin of the individual believer is constituted primarily by an offense against God. “Most merciful God,” says the prayer, “…we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” (emphasis added). It may indeed be the case that God is aggrieved, if we conceive God anthropomorphically, but to understand sin in this way allows us to downplay or even ignore how our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds actively harm other creatures. Marjorie Suchocki develops this process-relational perspective on sin in her book The Fall to Violence. It is not that classic Christianity neglects the issue of how we ought to treat our neighbor. But if atonement is ultimately or primarily framed as a transaction between God and the individual, the relational matrix not only of atonement but of sin itself is lost. Put simply, under this paradigm, sin, repentance, and atonement often become a spiritual transaction that bears no material fruit.
A process-relational disposition of world loyalty re/turns us to more Hebraic roots, where repentance, atonement, and redemption, along with sin, are deeply corporate. Otherwise, Lent and its vaunted disciplines of self-denial risk yielding a sort of inverted narcissism that celebrates my piety and my relationship with God, ironically mimicking the “hypocrites” who (in the gospel text for Ash Wednesday) pray on street corners and advertise their fasting so that others can see how righteous they are (Matthew 6). If I understand sin instead as inescapably relational, I must move beyond myself—including beyond my individual relation with the Divine.
This year, while admittedly failing to put it into practice, I have been deeply persuaded by David R. Henson’s call to white Christians to celebrate Lent as if #BlackLivesMatter by engaging in disciplines that honor--genuinely honor—Black History Month: not just exalting the heroes but reading slave narratives, searching for lynching victims in our own home counties, and fasting from predominantly white online media and instead focusing on black writers. Placed beside this sort of call, “I’m giving up sodas so that I can be reminded daily of how Jesus suffered for my sake” sounds both self-involved and anemic. Fasting and other forms of deprivation have a long and venerable history in the Christian tradition, yet certain postmodern manifestations of such practices become superficial when divorced from an awareness that our most significant sins impact not simply God or Jesus but neighbor upon neighbor upon neighbor—human and more-than-human, friend and stranger…near and far, present and future.
In my ongoing work with a large project on grace, I am quite critical of the classic Christian confession that we are “sinners” redeemed only by the condescending love of a merciful God. In my view, it pins too much negativity to humans. Likewise, I advance the provocative argument that humans have the capacity to court grace and to invite it into the world, even to incarnate it with and for each other (even for the Divine!). I expect that many Christians would reject such a theological vision, for it may seem to grant humans too much power, possibly too much credit.
Yet my true discomfort is not necessarily with the concept of sin, which carries great purchase for theologies that address systemic oppression. It is that “sin-sinner” language too often over-emphasizes the individual and lacks world loyalty, two qualities that, in my view, serve to promote the very “thoughts, words, and deeds” that do harm to the world…and in turn to the Divine. For the Divine-human dyad can be just as exclusively separative and thus self-absorbed as the self-involved individual alone. Turning to God is no guarantee of turning to neighbor.
None of this is to say that personal Lenten disciplines are inherently self-absorbed. Some years they ought to be quite self-centered, especially when a practice promotes self-care in the wake of trauma, depression, or harmful self-denial. (Not for the first time I commend Amy Laura Hall’s encouragement for some to eat chocolate for Lent.) Moreover, honest self-scrutiny—perhaps facilitated by a healthy practice of self-denial—has great capacity to lead us beyond ourselves. My invitation is simply to a wider understanding of sin, repentance, and atonement that moves beyond the enclosed dyad of individual-sinner-before-God. It is to acknowledge that I am I only in relation to We.
A Lenten discipline with world loyalty at its heart and relational wideness as its vantage point takes us beyond any cheap grace and into the refiner’s fire of communal repentance and atonement. Fasting from self-involvement and a chosen ignorance of our implication in broadly unjust systems will take us into uncomfortable places. But perhaps in those places we will recognize that we must do justice and love kindness in order to truly “walk humbly with our God.”
Also by Krista E. Hughes: Loved by God and Intrinsically Valuable, Too