It is a well-known phenomenon that travel to another country gives people a fresh perspective on their home country. The idea is that stepping outside the familiar helps us notice things we wouldn’t have otherwise. The adult Sunday School class has been studying Islam for the last month. The class is being led by Bill Schoedel, retired professor of religion at UIUC. One of the things that is interesting about this class, and unexpected (for me, at least), is that in studying another religion we are also gaining some perspective on our own religion. For instance, when we learned about how Muslims pray, we were also prompted to think about how we Christians pray, how it is different and how it is the same. Another example is the relationship of religion and violence. A common Western stereotype of Islam, especially post-9/11, is that it is a religion of violence. To be sure, Islam has had a complicated history with coercion, violence, and warfare. But this has also been true of Christianity. The Roman emperor Constantine believed that a vision of the monogram of Christ, the Chi-Rho, led him to victory in battle, and since that time (312 CE) the Christian church has had a complicated relationship with the state and the kind of coercive power states yield. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. But it can also be seen in the treatment of indigenous peoples in the history of European colonialism. And then there was the Thirty Years War of the 17th century, which pitted Protestants against Catholics. And there are many other examples. Yet in spite of these many examples, I don’t think we would think it fair for Christianity to be described as a religion of violence.
Something Professor Schoedel said in one of the early classes has been stuck in my brain over the past several weeks. He said that religion – any religion – gives people a chance to slow down and pay attention to their lives and their relationships. I think this is right. And in the Christian tradition, the season of Lent is particularly well suited to this. The tradition of taking on a Lenten discipline of one kind or another – prayer, fasting, giving – helps us to step out of our familiar routines and pay attention to how we are living our lives. If we are honest, we will be compelled to acknowledge the sin and brokenness in our lives. We are not fully attentive to our personal relationships. We also neglect our civic relationships and responsibilities, and are complicit in all kinds of collective acts of exploitation and harm. Pollution and environmental degradation are built into our way of life, from how we heat and cool our homes and how we get around, to how we buy our food, clothing, and other commodities. And hand-in-hand with this are systems that take advantage of others, systems that benefit us at their expense. All of this is easy to ignore and excuse. “Everybody else is doing it,” we protest, “so I’m no worse than others. It’s just how the world works. I can’t change it.”
Lent is a time for paying attention to all of these uncomfortable things about ourselves and the systems we participate in. But this is not an exercise in futility and despair. As depressing as it could be, we enter into this time confident that in Jesus Christ God has joined us in the hopelessly messy state of world that we find ourselves in. In the season of Lent we pay attention not only to the world as it is, but also to God-with-us in the midst of our predicament, who is working to transform our lives, and through us our systems, our environment, and the whole of creation. So let’s do that. Let us pay attention both to our lives as they are and our lives as God intends them to be, and let us be open to the transformation God is working in us through Jesus Christ.
+ Pastor Chris Repp