The yes came first. Which may same like a contradiction to the Biblical record, because Jesus’ 40-day encounter with the desert and the devil (which the church has long commemorated as the season of Lent) suggests that it was all about no. Jesus saying no to the cruel temptations the devil dangled in front of him; the desert denying him the basic necessities of food and water. And so, over the centuries, in an effort to be in solidarity with Jesus’ ordeal in the wilderness, faithful Christians have set aside Lent to say no or to engage in various acts of self-denial. No to French fries or chocolate or alcohol or channel surfing – or other distractions or pleasures. All done with the intention of bringing us closer to God.
But the yes came first. Before he could say no to the devil, Jesus said yes to God. Repeatedly. Forcefully mostly, but sometimes feebly. Either way, the yes came first. The acts of self-denial were undertaken for the purpose of reinforcing the yes – which had already been expressed.
When I lived in Japan forty years ago, Japanese people (99% of whom were non-Christian), always assumed that because I was a Christian, I couldn’t do much of anything. For them, Christianity was all about no; and as a result and in an expression of mistaken hospitality the saké was taken away, the cigarettes were hidden and the TV was turned to a more chaste channel. That is how much of the world sees us.
I invite you to join me in spending this Lent saying yes. Saying yes to God, and saying yes to the presence of God in each other. We can all use our various acts of self-denial to reinforce the yes.
There is an urgency in this, particularly in saying yes to the presence of God in each other. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes of a growing world-wide phenomenon called “othering.” Othering diminishes, and in many cases denies, the value of someone else – to the extent that an “other’s” life can be seen as expendable.
We have seen manifestations of othering with ISIS executions in Iraq and Libya, in the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and the kidnappings in Nigeria. Closer to home, the events in Ferguson and in Staten Island suggest that othering dynamics were in play. I can’t help but think that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated for measles are saying that their family silo has paramount importance – and that they have no responsibility – or accountability, for being in relationship with others. “Others” don’t matter.
A couple of weeks ago, in a presentation by a senior New Jersey jurist to a group of religious leaders, I learned of the growing numbers of “sovereign citizen groups” – in New Jersey, no less; people who refuse to acknowledge any accountability to anyone but themselves. They refuse to pay taxes, regularly sue the courts – and nearly everyone is “othered.”
Othering is the ultimate no.
Jesus wouldn’t have it. He said yes. We should as well. The world needs our witness.