Ashes and Guilt by Association

photo courtesy of vince42 via C.C. License at Flickr

photo courtesy of vince42 via C.C. License at Flickr

I walked into the noon service today, and felt a great sense of comfort at this great annual shift into Lent. The purple cloth over the cross, the silent gathering, the smell of burned palms, the flecks of ash on my nose – these lured me into the quiet and contemplation of a season of repentance.

Historically, the Church invites us to express our desire to repent by taking on spiritual practices – serving, fasting, praying. “What are you going to do for Lent?” – the perennial early February question. Every year, we are called to engage in different behaviors that might jolt us awake from our spiritual slumber. It’s like the posters that the YMCA has put up lately. They show slightly tubby members lifting weights, and they ask, “In three months, you’ll be wearing shorts. Are your thighs ready?”

One way to approach it is to do a cost-benefit analysis. Would giving up wine or red meat for six weeks help me be more open to God? [I don’t think it’ll be sweets, since I’m sitting here eating Girl Scout cookies as I write. Why oh why do the Girl Scouts have to sell Do-si-dos in Lent every year?? I could fast from Samoas, but not those Do-si-dos.]

God knows I have a lot to repent of. God knows I should give up a whole lot of things. But the cost-benefit analysis approach leaves me cold. I need a whole new heart, not a six-week leave of absence from the old one or even a toned and tuned-up heart that’ll last until, well, until I get tired of the spiritual work-out.

Another way to think about Lent is to take on an unusual obligation or act of service. This is almsgiving for the 21st century. We look around and find ways to ease the suffering of someone around us – preparing a meal for someone who is sick, sending a grocery certificate to someone who is unemployed, watching someone’s children so they can get a night away… all good deeds, every one of them.

Such things are good Christian practices. They’re also just plain good things to do, whether you’re Christian, Buddhist, atheist, or Muslim.

So what can I do for Lent this year that will make me a better Christian?

The “Christian” brand name is part of the problem. The label has become vacuous, and in many ways doesn’t have a lot to commend itself. It can mean nearly anything, and lots of people have a visceral connection with it that dredges up personal and associative memories, good and bad – but these days, mainly bad.

Much good has been done under the Christian banner, but so has much evil. For many, the name “Christian” has become synonymous with everything from western civilization, arrogance, abuse, racism, imperialism, Crusades, bigotry, hypocrisy, and greed… It’s only barely holding its own with associations of selfless service, generosity, compassion, caring for orphans, serving the poor… It’s a dicey call.

The Crusades, with their slaughter of Muslims, Jews, and fellow Christians, were Christian. Mother Teresa’s life of sacrificial service was Christian. Westboro Church in Kansas, with its godhatesfags.com website, is Christian. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Christian, as was his vision of justice. Jimmy Bakker and his empire-building was Christian. Billy Graham with his passion for preaching the gospel is Christian. Most members of the 19th-century Ku Klux Klan were Christians. Rick Warren and his worldwide activities to combat global poverty is Christian.

You can see the problem. Immediately you think to yourself as you encounter different examples above, “Well, I’m not THAT kind of Christian. A true Christian is… fill in the blank.”

It has become popular in some circles to abandon the label “Christian” because of these complex associations. To say I’m a Christian immediately makes me want to give certain qualifiers so you know that I’m not “one of them” (whoever you think “them” is). Yes, I’m a Mother Teresa Christian, but no, I’m not a Westboro Christian, but yes, I do vote Republican, but no, I don’t support Sarah Palin, but yes, I oppose federally-funded embryonic stem cell research, but no, I don’t think school prayer is a good idea, but yes…

So by abandoning the label “Christian” and substituting it with something like “a follower of Jesus” we avoid all the baggage. And there’s a lot of baggage under the banner. A lot to repent of. Let someone else do it, I’d like to say.

And yet part of repentance is realizing the ways we’ve entangled ourselves – personally and corporately – in systems of evil. A portion of our reading today was from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where he lists the ways he and his colleagues “commend themselves.” “In every way: in troubles… purity… kindness… dishonor… ill repute… regarded as imposters… sorrowful.” He seemed to recognize that persevering in faith meant, in part, being willing to bear the burdens of guilt by association.

The name Christian is tainted, yes. Worth keeping? Perhaps not, but I can’t imagine that any other label will in the long run fare better, because we’re made of the same stuff, and who’s going to manage the “membership issues” for the new label? Personally, I’d like to remove any association with “those sorts of Christians” (who aren’t really Christian at all, right?), but to bear the name is, in some measure, an act of repentance itself, a smudge of black on my forehead that I refuse to wipe off before I go out in public.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.

  • patknapp

    Kathy – good post. It is very true, that clearly defining religious descriptors are particularly important. Repentance is also, sadly, a lost value not only in the Christian tradition, but in our culture as a whole. Your post is a good reminder….thanks!

  • jaimielusk

    That does seem like a good thing to do for Lent…I should have done that instead of giving up sweets!


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