It is fitting that Lent begins smack dab in the middle of Black History month. Celebrating the heritage and contributions of African Americans is always accompanied by grief and lament. There were and are too many black deaths, too much indignity, and too little access. Color still trumps character it seems, and white privilege takes up too much financial, social, and psychic space.
Lent is a season of reckoning. This ancient liturgical season of the church calls us to remember who we really are, face our sin, and cast ourselves on God’s mercy anew. The Ash Wednesday texts call God’s people to “return with all your heart,” to repent, and to be reconciled to God. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).
The Psalter is full of lament. Individual lament Psalms are the most common form, and additionally there are many communal laments. They confess the stark awareness that personal betrayal and national infidelity have pushed them far away from God. These Psalms understand that human transgressions actually wound God as well as human subjects.
Being reconciled to God always has social implications; putting things right with fellow humans is the demonstration of a purged heart. My colleague Dr. Wallace Hartsfield II encourages us to use the language of “conciliation” rather than reconciliation because the latter suggests returning to a former state when all was well, which has never been the case. Conciliation is an attempt to resolve what has been disordered, and religion has exploited race in blasphemous ways, justifying slavery so that black people could hear the Gospel.
Part of my Lenten practice this year is to interrogate the places where I am still oblivious about my participation in racism. I know discrimination as a woman, but I do not have the double discrimination of black women. I did not have to battle to find textbooks that included white history, although the men were usually the main subjects of the history.
I am teaching Theology for the Women’s Leadership Initiative cohort this semester in Nashville. As we worked our way through theological anthropology, several observed how language for God continues to shape a hierarchical understanding of gender. Then a woman of color spoke up to say, it is not only gender that infects the vision of God, it is also color. The visual representations of God usually resemble a pale European, much like those who painted them.
Lament prompts us to tell the truth about our complicity in structural racism. Lament calls us to repent of our callow disregard for the value of black lives. Lament requires change of heart and behavior if there is to be any joy in life (Ps. 51:12), any assurance of relationship with God. Have mercy on us, O God.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares leaders for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.