Friday of the fifth week of Lent
The readings for the day can be found here.
There is plenty of tension in all three of the readings for today, the conflicts of Jeremiah and the Psalmist pointing us toward the energy of the upcoming Passion of Jesus which is rising toward a fever pitch. The danger that all of the protagonists face in the readings today bear witness to a kind of faith that I don’t think we normally think about. Too often I hear “faith” used to refer simply to whether I really believe there is a God out there or not, or some other misappropriation of faith as intellectual assent to this or that metaphysical claim. But that model of faith is a fair distance away from the kind of commitments that put Jeremiah and the psalmist and Jesus in the kinds of dire straits we see in the readings today. Jeremiah’s life is not imperiled because he asserts a belief in God – his tormentors are his fellow Jews, in particular the religious and political leaders of his time. And while John’s gospel may sound like Jesus is simply offering a novel doctrinal assertion that he is the Son of God, and that the Jewish authorities are hot on his heels because they assume he is blaspheming, in fact the faith-claim he makes goes much deeper. Both of them are making not only a doctrinal claim, but an existential and political claim, that God will not tolerate any exercise of authority, particularly religious authority, that seeks to establish a monologue by silencing any voices that would challenge that authority.
It is not simply a matter of asserting that there is a God – we assert a very particular kind of God, and living with faith means bearing witness to a kind of God who refuses power politics, bullying, fear-mongering, and a self-righteous willingness to see others’ faults as proof that I am good, righteous, holy. This is a kind of faith that is willing to face threats from the powers that be, to forego security and stability, for the sake of opening a space for the voices that don’t normally get heard, and that’s a whole different kind of faith from the kind I suspect we usually think about. It means faith that even when it is not convenient to speak dangerous truths to dangerous people (which it pretty much never is), and it threatens my job or my reputation or my place in the community, there are bigger things at stake than keeping myself secure. Of course, it isn’t just “the world” that needs to be challenged with this deconstructive God. The god of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and violence is alive and well in Christianity, and just as Jeremiah and Jesus had to muster the faith to challenge their co-religionists, living faithfully with the peculiar God of Jeremiah and Jesus means refusing to acknowledge the god that legitimates power-mongering and exclusion among Christians.
To be frank, I’m not very good at that kind of faith. After earning a few degrees in theology and spending the past decade in ministry, discussing doctrines and scriptural exegesis (that is, the usual kind of faith) is fairly easy for a guy like me. But when it comes to the kind of faith that entails standing up for the vulnerable against powerful people who have the influence to make my life unpleasant, I am mostly mumbling and vacillating in the places that really count. Perhaps that is one reason why Lent focuses so strongly on repentance – maybe it is less about this or that sinful action and more about the failure to be genuinely faithful to God, that is, the failure to move beyond our mumbling and our self-protective silences when those with big voices shout down those with little ones. Mohandas Gandhi famously said that if one’s only options were violence or cowardice, choose violence; obviously he was not advocating for violence, but for courage, for refusal to let evil endure by our silence and inactivity. Faith, then, comes to look much more like COURAGE than one might typically think – faith that even though “thy will be done” may well put me at odds with “my will be done,” the toppling of every unjust power is a much truer measure of fidelity than the kinds of intellectual assent we typically mistake for being men and women of faith.
Patrick Cousins works in the Department of Campus Ministry.