Lent’s traditional emphases are prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Its siren call is to turn – to turn back from wanton, gluttonous and calloused ways to the journey toward shared dignity, justice and righteousness while relinquishing privilege, looted assets and addictive habits.
This turning necessarily involves a kind of purging; and the Spirit’s voice resounds as shrill and demanding – not unlike the voice of Malcolm X, among the most prophetic voices in our nation’s history.
His breath of fire is not for our incineration but for our refinement. We submit to it not because we long for punishment but because we have been captivated by a dream as big as God.
Speaking personally, there was a period of years, moons ago, when I experienced a crippling sense of personal shame and social despair when realizing my own complicity in systemic racism.
The shame wasn’t because I had enslaved anyone or committed blatant acts of discrimination.
It was because I realized how clueless I was. And if I was this clueless in this regard, chances were that I was equally clueless about a whole range of other forms of unconscious bias.
Simultaneously, I feared that the same applied to larger society, that we as a people were also structurally complicit, trapped in a naiveté that prevented us seeing the truth about our wounded history that continues to color current behavior.
I recalled the word of Msimangu in Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, set in apartheid-era South Africa.
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day,” Msimangu said, “when they [white people] are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”
And I wondered, heartbroken and despondently, with the Apostle Paul’s feverish, fated plea, “Who can deliver me from this body of death?” – only without the subsequent affirmation.
There came a time, though, when quotes from three of my heroes bore me up from the sloughs of shame and despair. Not to make me innocent, but to allow me to be responsible, able to respond, freed from humiliation’s disabling power to move forward with courage and perseverance for the work of repair.
This process did not occur all at once, mind you, but over a period of years – it took time to soak in, and still threatens from time to time.
These are those quotes.
The first is from James Baldwin, writing in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”
“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously,” he wrote.
“You must accept them and accept them with love. For those innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Next, two from Maya Angelou.
“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it,” and “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Finally, one from Malcolm X himself.
“Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
Each of these are grace notes, hopeful disclosures, stemming from the pivotal word embraced by people of faith: Repentance is not for punishment but for the power of beginning again.
Not with a clean slate – we will ever bear our scars.
But the goodness of the good news is that we can begin again, we can orient ourselves and our society toward the holiness which radiates neighborliness, restoring right relations, and just kinship and social policies, knitting together the warp of heaven with the woof of earth.
Only by such grace-impelled, hope-provoked work – and it is laborious, sometimes sweaty, difficult, persevering, frustrating work – can we be saved.
Thanks be to God.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action, and author of, most recently, In the Land of the Willing: Litanies, Prayers, Poems, and Benedictions. He was the founding director of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and founding co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina.