I’M GIVING UP CERTAINTY FOR LENT
By DARRYL TIPPENS
There is the legend of the old Scottish True Believer who fervently prayed: “O Lord, I pray that I am right about everything, for Thou knowest I never change my mind.” While I’ve never prayed this prayer, I understand the sentiment of it. I was raised in a family which fostered self-confidence. My five siblings and I received healthy doses of “ego-strength.” We expressed opinions, lots of them, freely, firmly, and confidently. If our family had had a coat of arms, our motto would have read, “Often wrong, but never in doubt.” On the positive side, I was fairly acclimated to a culture of argument and general contrarianism. Today’s conflict-ridden political scene isn’t all that different from what I experienced growing up.
But too much certainty can lead to dysfunction and the fraying of the social fabric, as we see in our country today. The problem is not that Americans hold strong opinions on social, economic, and political matters. At least since the Boston Tea Party, Americans have demonstrated a readiness to express their views. What surprises today is the growing number of us who are not content just to hold opinions, but to take the second, extreme step to demean and in some instances even to try to silence those who hold different views.
Particularly unfortunate is the fact that even some Christians have fallen into the trap of speaking and writing contemptuously of those who differ with them. A 2018 Axios poll reports that 61percent of Democrats think Republicans are racist, bigoted or sexist; and about half of Republicans think Democrats are ignorant or spiteful.
Lent, it seems to me, is a timely gift, presenting a healthy antidote to the political poison circulating in our current national discourse. Lent is a season for reflection, penitence, and renewal. It is a gentle invitation to exercise humility and seek reconciliation. If Christians took Lent seriously, our relationships would be renewed and some sanity would be restored to our social environment.
At an earlier time of profound civil and religious unrest, Oliver Cromwell wrote a famous letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, an assembly of religious leaders who were seriously at odds with Cromwell. Cromwell pleads with the Scottish clergy to be less judgmental. “You take upon you to judge us in the things of our God, though you know us not,” he writes. Cromwell reminds them that they are, after all, fallible. And then he writes something that is as relevant today as it was in 1650. Echoing the quaint language of the 17th-century Bible (“bowels” in biblical terms means something like “heart-felt compassion”), Cromwell implores the churchmen:
“I beseech you, by the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
What a stunning and audacious suggestion—that the religious and political leaders of Scotland might not have it all right! The insight hits home. What if I recall—as the ashes are placed on my forehead—that I am a mortal creature of dust, and that I too may be mistaken? What if I confess that my preferred political leader or favorite political position might also be mistaken?
Lent is a season for fasting, so I will experiment with a media fast. Specifically, I will refrain from reading, dwelling on, or forwarding hostile political postings on social media. I will fast from news programs in which pundits or candidates shout and rudely talk over one another. By fasting from hostile political communications, I hope to find extra time to contemplate the counsel of St. Paul: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt. . . . Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience . . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 4:6, 12-14)
For Lent this year I initially thought I might give up coffee or chocolate, but this year dietary self-denial seems too easy. Instead, I’ve decided to give up political certainty for Lent. It will be hard. I’m not certain I’ll succeed. But, remembering that I am dust and will return to dust, I hope this year to be a little less certain about matters political.
Darryl Tippens is retired University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University