Talking about Violence: A Lenten Response

On Ash Wednesday, I was serving as the choir parent volunteer.

The parent brings the snack, serves as the second adult in the room, and helps out as needed. With 10 minutes left in practice, the Junior Choir Director stops and informs the children (3rd – 8th grade) that they can attend the Ash Wednesday prayer service upstairs and receive ashes if they so choose. One young girl raises her hand and says “what for?” The Director immediately turns to me and says, “Can you handle this one?”

Many adults struggle to understand Lent, let alone explain it to young children. We might be able to talk about the splendor of Easter, but Lent requires we face the violence and death of the crucifixion. In my experience, we tend to tell children something like: Jesus’ died on the cross for our sins. Jesus’ sacrifice saved us all. In other words, we brush over the rated R details and make sense of a senseless act. It’s not just parents; theologians have produced many responses based in valorization of and retribution for the cross.

For those of us who have the luxury of living free of violence, it makes sense that we want to protect our children. Even in everyday situations, whether it is reports of a professional athlete being suspended for intimate violence, protests in response to police shootings, or ongoing wars over global conflict, we often change the channel or remain silent. However, changing the channel doesn’t change the reality that violence is a huge social problem. Alternatively, letting the stories be heard by our children without comment, may lead them to think violence is normal. Lent is an opportunity for a richer response not just to the violence at the heart of the Christian story, but to violence more generally.

I suggest that we do away with theologies that say that Jesus’ sacrifice is a model for Christian life. That we all have crosses to bear and must endure them as Jesus did. Really? In most cases, those crosses aren’t even in the same ballpark as crucifixion; and if they are, we are probably not likely to tell someone to “suck it up for Jesus’ sake.” Perhaps an important distinction is that Jesus’ suffering was voluntary. Yet when voluntary suffering leads to a greater good (like civil disobedience during the civil rights movement), the violence experienced in that suffering is still unjustified. Involuntary suffering due to violence is always unjustified. For example, too many times victim/survivors of intimate violence are told it was their fault or their suffering is a sacrifice that Jesus understands.

Trying to make meaning out of violence, can quickly become a historically slippery slope of justifying it. Christian history is filled with terror and violence towards its own believers and most certainly toward non-believers: the inquisitions, the holy wars, colonization, missionary zeal, and wars supported by Christian American exceptionalism, to name but a few examples.  Some would argue that Christianity birthed, in the death of its God, the reason for and desire to bring violence upon others. Certainly, it is not the first religion to do so, nor the first organized community or institution to respond in such a way.

I wonder if the resurrection and resilience found in the cross can ever fully unsettle a faith tradition that relies on a violent act to give us meaning – the feeling that we need violence to be who we are. Delores Williams, a womanist theologian is (in)famous for her response to the question “for what did Jesus come?” at the 1993 Reimagining Conference:

Williams: “I think Jesus came for life and (to show us) how to live together, what life was all about. . . . I think the cross ought to be interpreted for what it was, a symbol of evil, the murder of an innocent man and victim. When we confront the status quo as Jesus did, when we raise questions about the poor and empowering people who’ve never had power before, we’re more than likely going to die for it.”

In other words, if we were to look only at Jesus’ life and “get it” – do what he says and act as he does – would that be enough to guide you as a Christian?  Does the cross add anything to helping you figure out what we ought to be doing as Christians?

As we consider how we tell children about Lent and the crucifixion more specifically, I want to suggest that we need to stop making meaning out of violence and just let it be wrong!

When I explain Lent to children, I say, “Lent is a time for us to consider what Jesus’ life and ministry means for us today. What do we need to change to better live in a manner that reflects Jesus’ teaching?  During Lent, we also remember that the way Jesus asks us to live often challenges those who have power. In Jesus’ time, religious and political leaders were fearful of his teachings, so they put him to death on a cross. A few days after being put in a tomb, Jesus is resurrected as we celebrate on Easter. That does not erase the violence and harm he suffered but it tells us that God lived after death.”

Originally posted here for Gathering Voices, Conversation at TheThoughtfulChristian.com.