Niall Cooper: Lent: Going deeper
So what are you giving up for Lent? Chocolate, alcohol, or something a little more substantial? For some, the challenge of what to give up is a daily reality, and not just for Lent. The choice is whether to eat or heat, pay the rent or pay the bills. As the economic crisis rumbles on into its fifth year, for increasing numbers Lent is a permanent state of affairs.
A couple of years ago, we held an event to hear about the impact of the recession on some of the communities we work with in Manchester. The answer was not what we expected: Recession? For many of our folk it has made precious little difference. Our communities live in permanent recession. Bishop Doye Agama, speaking out of the tradition of the African diaspora in the UK went further: “Recession is nothing new to us. For the majority of members of the black community, our experience over many years has been of hardship and exile.” In the same way, Bob Marley and other black musicians and poets often sung and wrote of the experience of living in Babylon.
But the Lenten story is not just one of 40 days and nights spent in the wilderness. For Jesus, the Lenten challenge was also fundamentally to face down the demons of his day: temptations to worship false idols; to seek power, fame or fortune. Today, such demons are just as real, and they are designed to appeal to our deepest human desires, just they were as in Jesus’s day.
Firstly, the temptation to power. Power in itself is no bad thing. As Martin Luther King said: “Power is the ability to achieve a purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.” But a lust for power over others is something else. The power to treat fellow human beings as disposable, “beyond redemption”, and to blame them for society’s problems is all too real today. How easy is it to fall for the familiar media stereotypes used to denigrate others – skivers, shirkers, the so-called “feckless poor”, gypsies, gays, asylum seekers, Islamists, incomers, immigrants… “Dog whistle” language used to dehumanise and deny humanity to people who have little or no power of their own to challenge the myths and misrepresentations. Yet, as Christians, we believe that every person is made in the image of God, and has value. We are called to speak out when people are marginalised, excluded and stigmatised.
Secondly, the temptation to worship false gods. What is our modern obsession with celebrity culture other than a form of flirtation with false gods? As Pete Ward says: “We are asked to worship versions of our sacred selves reflected through the lens of media-generated images.” We are invited to live our lives vicariously through the carefully crafted images fed to us of the rich and famous, inhabiting a glittering faux paradise of designer tans, designer houses and designer children; private schools, private jets, private yachts. But as with all forms of idolatry, the allure of celebrity is ultimately a distortion of truth – a false promise of happiness which cannot be sustained once the unvarnished realities of our own lives kick back in.
Most of all, we are tempted to imagine that true fulfilment comes through the accumulation of material possessions. What is the advertising industry, but a multi-million pound exercise in temptation? We are each assailed on average by 1,500 adverts a day: siren voices saying “Eat, drink, buy, covet and consume. Spend, spend and spend some more.” As Giles Fraser says: “Advertising promises us salvation but is designed to keep us feeling unhappy… Advertising wounds us with the message that our current life is rubbish, and then asks for our credit card number as way of making things right… And what is most immoral about all of this is that the more we squeal about our own (artificially generated) wants being unmet, the more the genuine needs of the vulnerable are being ignored.”
So before we reach Easter, we have to face down our own contemporary demons and false gods. Lust for the power to judge others; obsession with the fake world of wealth, fame and celebrity; the corrosive allure of consumer culture. But more than all of this, we also have to find ways to share the pain and suffering of those for whom the wilderness experience is not a fleeting five-week run up to Good Friday, but a permanent daily reality. Now there’s a challenge worthy of reflecting on this Lent.
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Reform.