05-Lent: Politicizing the Desert
To keep things interesting and the perspectives fresh, Tim Runtz, our associate editor and circulation manager, penned this week’s Lenten reflection (instead of James Wilt, who usually writes them).
As an enthusiastic product of late-’90s evangelicalism, I was often reminded during Lent that I had given up candy or computer games or swearing for six weeks to get closer to God. The big question was always what I had decided to give up, but when it came right down to it, Lent was less about the renunciation than it was about achieving some sort of perennially renewed spiritual enlightenment. Or, to use the language more familiar to my 13-year-old self, I had given up whatever it was in an effort to, “rekindle my relationship with Jesus.”
Looking back, I think this tension between asceticism and spirituality had me on the right track, but despite my efforts, the connection between giving up chocolate and encountering the divine never seemed to work for me. Even during those most pious years of my youth when my willpower lasted a full 40 days, I left church on Easter Sunday feeling not enlightened or “rekindled,” but only desperate for an afternoon binge on Easter bunnies or computer games. The rewards of renunciation were elusive. I could only hope they awaited me in heaven.
A construction worker’s walkabout
Our 40 days of abstaining each year are a kind of liturgical re-imagining of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. We know the story well: Jesus retreated to the desert, was tempted three times, and 40 days later emerged ready to begin his life’s work. But we tend to forget when it comes to Lent that Jesus’ desert wandering wasn’t simply a break from his creature comforts for the sake of personal growth.
As far as we know, before his vision quest Jesus wasn’t a local guru, a political activist, or even a priest; he was probably a fairly average construction worker who may have even helped build Herod’s summer getaway (see Geez 16). To call Jesus’ walkabout paradigm shifting would be an understatement to say the least. Jesus wasn’t just out there getting psyched up to heal the sick and raise the dead, he was undergoing a radical personal transformation. After 40 days he hadn’t just tweaked a bad habit, the trajectory of his life had been utterly changed. His coworkers probably thought he had lost his mind.
Now, to be fair, it does seem rather ambitious to compare our attempts at 21st-century asceticism to such a formative 2,000-year-old legend. After all, confectionary abstinence hardly fits in the same category as desert wandering. But insofar as Lent is a remembering of the story of Jesus in the wilderness and not just an ecclesially imposed celebration of self-control, it’s worth considering the focus of Jesus’ new life. This is to say, the desert experience does not mark an arbitrary or merely ideological shift in the story of Jesus – it’s a particularly political move. This becomes evident as we look at the three temptations.
After 40 days without food, Jesus’ first temptation is to transform the stones around him into bread. He refuses, saying that “one does not live by bread alone.” This passage is sometimes interpreted as favouring the spiritual over the physical: “If we just have enough faith we won’t need to rely on typical human sustenance.” It seems though, that this type of interpretation usually comes from a pulpit of privilege. It’s easy to spiritualize food if you’ve never been hungry.
Instead of further devaluing the necessities of life we already take for granted, perhaps it’s better for those of us living with privilege to read this passage as an appeal to share in the suffering of others. In choosing hunger, Jesus aligns himself as an equal with those who are oppressed, instead of approaching them as a well-fed saviour. When he says that one can’t live on bread alone, he’s calling into question the sufficiency of the middle-class comfort our society calls “success.” Here we see a demand for an inversion of priorities where we seek to align ourselves more with those who suffer and less with those who hold the power.
The second and third temptations are consistent with this inversion of priorities. Jesus is next taken to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and invited to jump, with assurance that he won’t be hurt. Such a public feat would surely guarantee Jesus celebrity status and the cultural heft that comes with it. Instead, he chooses to remain anonymous, entering his work as a vagabond.
Ched Myers takes this interpretation one step further by suggesting that “what Jesus confronts in this temptation is the ultimate form of idolatry: identifying God’s name with our historical projects.” From Israel’s early conquests to contemporary American exceptionalism, there has been a long history of claiming God’s endorsement of private endeavours. By refusing to perform such a miracle at the temple, Jesus denies both the cultural and religious credibility such a stunt would give him.
Finally, Jesus is taken up a mountain and shown “all the kingdoms of the world.” All he has to do is worship the devil and he will be given political control over everything he sees. Being familiar with the 10 commandments, Jesus refuses to bow down to Satan. But we should note that Jesus doesn’t deny that this political power is Satan’s to give. To quote Jacques Ellul, Jesus “is in implicit agreement. Satan can give political authority but the condition for exercising political authority is adoration of the power of evil.” Just as Jesus identifies with those who suffer in the first temptation and turns away from cultural credibility in the second, here we see him rejecting a third type of power: that of political authority. For Ellul, such a rejection of politics is not merely a refusal to run for office, but an opting out of systems which perpetuate violence. Jesus’ response to a society of oppression is not to impose change from a position of power, but to embody nonviolent resistance to oppression and mobilize those around him to do the same.
Personalizing the political
What, then, does this all have to do with Lent?
All three temptations represent a thorough inversion of our typical capitalist notions of success. They reject our default orientation towards accumulating power – whether economic or socio-cultural – and they instead urge us to be more humble. They force us to question our goals and alliances and to detach ourselves from systems of oppression. Rather than striving to be more like those whom society deems successful, Lent is a time to invert our priorities.
So, let your Lenten practice be an entry point into this reorientation. Do something humbling. Sabotage your cultural credibility. Find a way to detach from systems which oppress. For example:– Start taking public transit and get to know the regulars on your route
– Wear the same clothes every day until Easter
– Eat simply
– Turn down a promotion
– Ask an indigenous person about your shared colonial heritage
– Unplug your wifi and ignore the latest viral video
– Attend a protest in solidarity with victims of injustice
– Work less
– Buy less
– Talk less
– Listen more
If you’ve already committed to giving up chocolate or coffee or meat, keep at it. But take some time to learn about the working and living conditions of those who produce the product you’ve given up (or in case you’ve given up meat, those who are that product), and find out how much oil or water goes into producing that daily cup of coffee.
By rejecting the three temptations, Jesus rejects three types of power: economic, cultural, and political. This is not all to say that Lent shouldn’t be a spiritual experience. But it should be a political experience, and we too quickly lose sight of that. In fact, if our politics and spirituality aren’t intermingled, we’ve missed the point of the story of Jesus somewhere along the way.
Paul Hare wrote us a kind message with some of his thoughts on the intersection of skepticism and Lent:
“Thank you for your invitation to Lent for Skeptics. For myself, the idea of being a skeptic has always had this fine edge between being open and being cynical. It seems to me this is another example of the many paradoxes in life. How to search when so many of my selves are competing with me?
“Which leads into humanity’s automation which starts well before the use of any machines or these days electronics which I would agree only add to my distractions. Experience shows that we develop or maybe are even born with these auto-responses. Someone is rude to me or cuts me off in traffic, and I automatically am mad at them. I take it personally somehow. My culture, education, religion all teach me how to respond.
“Lent, has somehow become a reminder at one level to pause and at another level is related to something sacred that I sense but do not know. It is another reminder for me of how do I act and allow myself to see myself and indeed those around me and life. To see without reaction, judgment and to stay beyond my surface attentions and to summon the energy and courage to look deeper.”
As always, feel free to get in touch with us at lentforskeptics [at] geezmagazine [dot] org