Feel the Bern, Feel the Ash

“Seems like the best way to decide if someone is electable is to hold an election.” — Logan

Lent begins today. I pass people with ashes smudged across their foreheads, reminding me of a time when I observed the start of this holy season with a different attitude. I used to spend the weeks leading up to Lent figuring out exactly which thing I should give up which would strike the delicate balance between “will make me suffer” and “really doesn’t make me suffer at all because suffering sucks.” I wanted to feel like I was doing something meaningful without actually doing something inconvenient. Eventually, I stopped thinking of God as someone who gave even one damn about what I did or didn’t give up for a month and a half. I became especially convinced that God didn’t care what I gave up when what I gave up was so trivial, so privileged to begin with, so utterly materialist in my attachment to it anyway. Unfortunately, while I stopped thinking of Lent in those terms after I finished high school, most of American Christianity kept right on going.

Overall, I’m a cynical person. I don’t give the benefit of the doubt often, especially when it comes to folks expressing their religiosity, or, as they more likely see it, their innermost personal faith.[1] I realize that Christians who still approach Lenten practice as “I’m going to give X up for the next few weeks” are, for the most part, genuinely trying to get at what the church is asking us to do during this time. I think they're missing the point, but that's judgmental of me. If I'm assuming the best of them, which I'm terrible at doing, I should admit that they’re working at self-denial as a means to reflection and contemplative faith practice.

That goal is a good one. But I’ve long lost the ability to trust in our modern means of reaching it. I tend not to trust a lot of things the church in my context does, foremost because I see American Christianity (the only version Christianity I know personally) as irredeemably tied to the capitalist economic system that drives our everyday lives. Church and faith culture so often fall into the traps of selling us a false scarcity, of perpetuating the need to belong “rightly,” which is usually to say “uniquely,” though the actual vision of the Kingdom is supposed to be universal. It seems, therefore, a little trite to think about how giving up your favorite soda is doing anything at all. But I suppose in an environment which says consuming is everything, not consuming is supposed to be something.

My cynicism stretches beyond the bounds of how others practice Lent. It’s in overdrive right now given the amplifying political spectacle at work. It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me—and shouldn’t be to anyone who reads me—that I’m a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter. I feel the bern. So when I’m constantly faced with arguments on why this particular candidate isn’t “electable,” all I want to scream is “Anyone is electable if you go elect them!” I’m in a struggle to deny what I know about the American political landscape and instead choose a vision of the future, a vision I believe Bernie and many others share, which emboldens communities to be better at being communal. I’m keeping my cynicism at bay so that I can carry on doing the work of seeking a compassionate way forward in this time and place in which I live.

In a way, it’s probably the most obvious Lenten observation I’ve made in years. For the first time in so long, I’m denying a part of myself in favor of the work all Christians are called to do, namely the work of building the Kingdom here on earth. So as long as I’m putting down the cynicism, maybe in the same way you put down chocolate[2], I guess I’m participating in a tradition I thought I’d left behind long ago. I’m preparing for a vision bigger than myself, bigger than one election or one person seeking an office, or even one movement which is trying to bring about specific change in a specific region. Rather, I’m looking toward a future in which all are lifted up as created ones, valued and cared for, a world inherited by the meek. It’s a resurrection vision, an Easter-people’s hope.

Take the offering of my cynicism, Lord. I’ll try to give it up as long as I can.

[1]: See what I did there? I’m rich in cynicism. Loaded.
[2]: Dammit. I did it again. Don’t take it personally, please.