The start of the 2015 Lenten season coincided with the birthdays of writers Toni Morrison (b. 1931) and Audre Lorde (b. 1934). Lorde died in 1992, just a year before Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Had she survived breast cancer, Lorde would have been 81 years old this year. Morrison is now 84. Both of them lived through the all-too-short public career of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, still better known to the world as Malcolm X. Many of us remembered Malik’s life and the 50th anniversary of his assassination on Saturday, February 21.
All three of these elders leave a legacy of full-throttle freedom, a world upturned and reordered through the creative, active word. All three also remind me of C.S. Lewis’ Aslan: unapologetic, unbought, uncaged.
I don’t come from a faith tradition that observes either Lent or Easter, but I did grow up in England where Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras) was also known as Pancake Day. As a seasonal nod, my mother sometimes made us pancakes. My favorite kind had batter mixed with pureed apples from the trees in our garden.
Now I’m far from that home, a new immigrant in a society shaped by the best and worst of faith, and a Seventh-day Adventist occupying the limen of my denomination, I’ve been reflecting on this season. What does it mean to learn from Lent here in the US? The calendar here is a long list of corporatized holidays.
Christmas doesn’t pass before pink paper hearts and chocolates adorn the stores. We barely have time to flee the Valentine’s ball before the Easter pastels rush into the spaces we leave behind. We all but save the nation through our spending and production—and stores and media platforms are all happy to sanctify our rites.
It made sense to me that by the evening of Mardi Gras, some countered with the sobriety of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten weeks. I saw several social media announcements about people’s plans to fast from Facebook or other social media platforms. As well as 40-day fasts, there were also hundreds of “giv* up [X] for Lent” announcements on Twitter. “The ‘giving up [X] for Lent’ tweets,” I wrote, “are a pretty interesting data set.”
As Verdell Wright noted, these tweets are ripe for quantitative analysis: what percentage of users are giving up traditional items—meat, fat, flour—or making modern Lenten sacrifices—alcohol, sugar, television, social media? How many aren’t participating at all, but rather ride the wave of conversation and meta humor about it all?
There are also qualitative notes to play. Richard Thomas, for example, tackles the oppression hidden in plain sight in popular celebrations of Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras beads—also used during LGBT Pride season—are manufactured outside the US in Chinese factories that don’t prioritize workers’ freedom or equity. So annual festivities on Bourbon Street, NOLA, are enmeshed with worker oppression 7,300 miles away in the manufacturing city of Fuzhou, China. David Redmon’s Mardi Gras: Made in China tells this story.
Thomas, however, uses Augustinian theology to assess America’s Mardi Gras: he argues that the festival masks economic relationships that aren’t free or equal, that undermine a telos (end or purpose) of increased human equality, freedom, and dignity. Thomas also focuses exclusively on Christians. Whereas I would universalize these proposed ends—Christians don’t merit a more beneficial end than other humans do—I question whether Augustine would’ve yielded his seat at the More Equal Than You table for new bosses on Animal Farm. (Other readers are more hopeful.)
The beneficial end that accrues to all people is an end that doesn’t rest on membership in Christian organizations or compliance with consensus. Mere existence and unconditioned humanity has to be enough. A “dignity” and “protection from exploitation” that only applied to some humans would be no more worth defending than the Christian slave-trading of John Newton.
So what if I told you that Lent wasn’t the only holiday period when oppression marries piety? Each November we see angst about stores open on Thanksgiving Day and excesses on Black Friday. I know that a great deal of the backlash is sincere. Much of it concentrates on a few short days between Labor Day and Christmas, on the micro-actions of ordinary people looking for deals for themselves or their loved ones, and others who can’t afford not to work. So little focus on the system and customary social order that Thanksgiving allows us to escape.
“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary… We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” —Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Empire is dangerous because it morphs just enough to still govern you while you sing nostalgic lullabies about its decline or observe the anniversaries of its death. Oh, I wish I lived in Dixie—hooray, hooray! For the great achievement of not recognizing that the old world has merely changed form and not passed away, we gain rest and family time we can’t otherwise afford to take. Paid holidays are breaks from a wearying routine, a life in which profits may be private but risks and costs are common goods.
The holidays prompt some talk about restructuring daily life. And perhaps, like the New Year’s Resolution, they also encourage people to make small, meaningful, and, we hope, sustainable changes.
The holidays also function as a steam vent, channeling personal and popular energy that might otherwise overturn the Temple or the Senate. Gil told us that the revolution would not be televised. It also won’t happen during paid vacation time.
Many of us benefit, if we work in traditional jobs, from the 40-hour labor week and the principle of the workless weekend. Progressive Christianity admires the debt forgiveness of the Hebrew Jubilee: land at rest, debts quashed, and slaves freed every 7th and 50th year (Lev. 25:1-55; Deut. 15:1-23). And the weekly Sabbath also suggests a telos, but is it a taste of liberty from a corrupt order on one day of the week? Or can we aim for lives of liberty and freedom no matter who we are and no matter which day it is?
But Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.”
There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land…if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord.
If only. The implication is that inequity will persist only with sustained disobedience and disregard for the Israelites’ structures around labor, farming, indentured servitude and slavery, multi-generational debt, and wealth gained through the indebtedness of others. Yet even these laws and practices didn’t apply universally: Deuteronomy 15 shows that the new law would give very different protections to the Hebrew and “the foreigner among you.” This revolution is not for the entire human family.
The gospels’ writers make Jesus’ first major scripture reading a portion of Isaiah 61. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Isaiah and Jesus say in chorus, “because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“You were bought with a price,” the free-born Paul later writes; “Do not become slaves of men.” Yet he also writes, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. If you gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity…. in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
Freedom and favor for the prophets’ people. For all others, metaphysical freedom. Not everyone’s enslavement merits the song of Moses.
I’ve taken to using the hashtag “Get Free” when the status quo presses in and the yearning of my ancestors haunts me. This morning, for example, I remembered Bob Marley’s 1976 song, “One Drop.” It ended my dreamtime and stayed with me through the day.
Feel this drumbeat as it beats within
Playing a rhythm resisting against the system…
Give us the teachings of His Majesty
A-we no want no devil philosophy.
When my ancestors sought their freedom, they received the teachings of the kings, queens, and ruling class that didn’t prioritize their interests. In their name, Bob says instead “Rather than the teachings of a regional king, give us a more universal philosophy. Give us those teachings that enliven us and testify to our power in this life, not just in the world to come. We want no devil philosophy, none of the philosophy and ideology that encodes our subordination and empowers the ruling class.”
In some performances, Bob sings the imperative request, “Give us the teachings.” In others, he describes a continuous action: “You give us the teachings…” (“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”) Either way, he contrasts the teachings and philosophy of the temporal Crown with the teachings of the Creator.
As we become more aware, as we wake up, we naturally choose what enlivens us and shed whatever chains remain. These days, those who nourish me are those who read this world with an eye for life, presence, and liberty; sense that there’s more than the already manifest; and aren’t willing to leave any sibling stranded outside. This is my community: those who’re pulling rights from wrong and healing this world as they go.
“There is a notion of paradise that says that the lion lays down with the lamb… By the way this is not natural. It ain’t natural, for the lion and lamb—because one of them eats the other.
“For the lion to lay down with the lamb means that the lion has to divest him/herself of its predatory nature. And the lamb must divest itself of [victimhood]. That’s when paradise happens. We look for a day when all the children are safe because all the children are our children.” —Bishop Yvette Flunder [40:26]
If the holiday is a caged revolution, then we reclaim all time as holy. If the approved revolution frees only a few, then the un-televised revolution throws open the gates to the world. We don’t know exactly what this degree of openness looks like, and we don’t yet have the usual authorities on board.
But some of us are feeling the rhythm beating within, and we’re breaking further into life every waking day.