Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. In progressive churches, there’s often a focus on “giving up” something in order to give it away – skipping a meal and giving the cost of the meal to the Food Shelf, using the money you’d usually spend on chocolate to buy cans of soup for the poor instead.
Feeding the hungry is never the wrong thing to do. However, I’m a little leery of the automatic division between “us” and “the poor” in these Lenten disciplines. As innumerable wise women and men have pointed out, giving to “the poor” without trying to change the system that keeps people poor can be spiritually self-serving. It makes us feel better about ourselves without doing much to change the status quo. At the institutional level, it can create a church environment that is subtly exclusive of those without economic resources. After all, if “we” are giving to “the poor” as part of our observation of Lent, then “we” must not include any poor folks.
What I wish for is a national or international organization, along the lines of 350.org, that organizes people against the systemic causes of poverty and for a more just and egalitarian economic system. I wish for an organizer who will call religious communities, social groups, and civic governments to demonstrate and provide teach-ins along the lines of 350.org’s organizing against the climate crisis. I’d love to see a map showing dozens of “We Are the 99%” rallies in my rural area alone, as I have for climate-related rallies. I pray for leaders who will organize this movement.
But in the meantime I suggest a different Lenten discipline: for Christians who pray for an end to poverty to commit to an Occupy event in their area, or to preach, write, or blog about economic injustice. Maybe to organize a teach-in or demonstration themselves. We don’t yet have a global, web-based organization well-endowed with celebrity support. But the Occupy movement has done one thing exceptionally well: it has got people thinking and talking about economic injustice and the structures that support that injustice in a way we haven’t heard for a long time. What we need now is to maintain – or, better yet, increase – the momentum, to keep talking about it, to continue to show support for those doing the organizing and the physical occupying. Poverty, the jobless rate, unequal access to training and services for women and people of color – none of these things have gone away. So keep talking about it.
Maybe all we need to give up for Lent is our apathy or our shyness, or whatever is keeping us from showing up to ask our questions and speak our minds and pray together for the wisdom, compassion, and imagination we need to end poverty. But when we show up, we find strength and joy in knowing we’re not alone in having these questions and ideas. When we show up, we find that, as promised, God is there.
Occupy Lent. Occupy your heart.