“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and for many it will be as any other day. For others it will be a religious event that is done because we have always done it and it is a part of the liturgical life of the Church. For others it will be a time of commitment to a cause, a belief or in some cases ideology to base their lives upon.
Lent is a penitential time, a time to take stock of our lives and in the Christian faith in which it has a important place a time where over a period of seven weeks we seek to again renew our faith in Christ, examine our lives in light of the Gospel and learn again how to experience the grace love and mercy of God in the simple words of Jesus to the woman at the well “Your sins have been forgiven, go and sin no more.”
While this is the crux of Lent for some it will be a time of misplaced activity, not activity centered on prayer, good works and renewing faith in the Crucified One but rather in transitory political, social and ideological agendas that often have little to do with the Gospel, but are rather activities where well meaning people have been seduced into the false promises of ideologues of various persuasions who have no real interest in the Gospel but political or economic power be they conservative or liberal, capitalist or socialist. The seductiveness of these ideologies appeals to the passion and emotion of people who regardless of their political or religious persuasions become enamored with the ideology and then reinterpret life, faith and relationships to fit the ideology. When this happens to Christians this can lead to twisting Scripture and Tradition to fit the ideology much as did the theologians, pastors and lay people in German churches in the late 1920s and 1930s.
When two powerful ideologies collide as did Communism and National Socialism in Germany, Socialism and Gaullism is France or contemporary Liberalism and Conservatism in the United States the conflict will spill out and over into Churches and other religious institutions. Well meaning people will sublimate their faith beneath the ideology and political ethos that they most agree with. The ideology overrides faith even as the religious institutions and individuals within them conform their faith not to Christ crucified but to ideologies which may have merit and benefit but ultimately, despite the protestations of tier loudest purveyors have little actually to do with the faith and which embraced in their totality are the antithesis of the faith and the enemies of Christ. It matters not if the ideology is “liberal” or “conservative” because ultimately these ideologies even when defended by pastors, theologians and “baptized” with Scripture, and despite some qualities which may be complimentary to the Gospel are often set against the Gospel and seek to use the Church, Christians and others simply as pawns to sacrifice in their quest for total unadulterated political, social or economic power.
In our contemporary American culture the loudest and most prominent voices and those which have more influence on churches and individual Christians are the political ideologues of the right and the left who inhabit talk radio and the various cable television news networks. It seems too often that well meaning Christians and others assume everything being spoken from media personalities and entertainers that they like and agree with is compatible with the faith. However just because Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Keith Olberman, Chris Matthews or any other commentator on the airwaves says, nor because our political party leaders and Presidential or Vice Presidential candidates echo our passions and feed our fears about the other party does not mean that what they say is Christian or compatible with the Christian faith and tradition even when those individuals claim the mantle of a “Christian” leader. The adoption and blessing of the often perverted theological ideas of media personalities, talking heads and politicians by individual Christians, Church leaders and denominations can only result in their enslavement by the individuals and organizations to whit they give their blessing. When this happens the ideologues will readily support social or policy goals of the religious groups but only to gain their vote. This is proven by history and experience. One only has to look at how German Christians of various traditions were seduced by the promises of Hitler and the Nazis during a time since November 1918 their society had been ripped apart by military defeat, economic humiliation, internal revolution and societal change which threatened the values that they held dear and in reactions to the Nazi promises sold themselves and their country to the devil. This type of thing has happened in other countries but is most glaringly seen in the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Nazi era.
Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, a leader of the Confessing Church was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis lectured about how ideology can become its own idol and the purveyors of ideology can themselves make it an idol from which they cannot separate themselves and to which they become mouthpieces for as they bend their deeply held belief’s to the ideology. The ideology itself becomes an absolute from which no deviation is allowed. As Barth so poignantly stated:
“[Ideology] comes about as [one] thinks he can and should ascribe to the presuppositions and sketches he has achieved by his remarkable ability, not just a provisional and transitory but a permanent normativity, not just one that is relative but one that is absolute, not just one that is human but one that is quasi-divine. His hypotheses become for him theses behind which he no longer ventures to go back with seeking, questioning, and researching. He thinks that they can be thought and formulated definitively as thoughts that are not merely useful but instrinsically true and therefore binding. His ideal becomes an idol. He thinks that he knows only unshakable principles and among them a basic principle in relation to which he must coordinate and develop them as a whole, combining them all, and with them his perceptions and concepts, into a system, making of his ideas an ideology. Here again the reins slip out of his hands. This creature of his, the ideology, seems to be so wonderfully glorious and exerts on him such a fascination that he thinks he should move and think and act more and more within its framework and under its direction, since salvation can be achieved only through the works of its law. This ideology becomes the object of his reflection, the backbone and norm of his disposition, the guiding star of his action. All his calculations, exertions, and efforts are now predestined by it. They roll towards its further confirmation and triumph like balls on a steep slope. Man’s whole loyalty is loyalty to the line demanded by it. He thinks that he possesses it, but in truth it already possesses him. In relation to it he is no longer the free man who thought he had found it in its glory and should help to put it on the throne. He now ventures to ask and answer only within its schema. He must now orient himself to it. He must represent it as its more or less authentic witness and go to work as its great or small priest and prophet. At root he no longer has anything of his own to say. He can only mouth the piece dictated to him as intelligibly as he can, and perhaps like a mere parrot. His own face threatens already to disappear behind the mask that he must wear as its representative. He already measures and evaluates others only from the standpoint of whether they are supporters of this ideology, or whether they might become such, or whether they might at least be useful to it even without their consent, or whether they must be fought as its enemies. Its glory has already become for him the solution not only to the personal problem of his own life but to each and all of the problems of the world.” ~ Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics IV/4, Lecture Fragments, 225.
Barth’s words which are the result of seeing good people surrender their faith to ideology should not be taken lightly as we enter into the Lenten season. The season of Lent is a time to acknowledge our need for the grace and mercy of God and find forgiveness for ourselves while extending the same grace, love and mercy shown to us to our neighbor, even the neighbor who does not agree with the ideologues that we prefer.
Our challenge in a time of turmoil and conflict is not to be seduced by the shameless appeals of ideologues of all stripes but to return to faith in the God who comes to us, suffers for and with us and in himself provides the promise of redemption and the forgiveness of sins.
For me this Lent will involve a more premeditated effort to encounter Christ in all that I meet and rebuilt spiritual disciplines that suffered when I went through the crisis of faith that dominated my life for nearly two years. I do pray that for those who elect to observe this season that it will not be a time of legalistic obedience under which we chafe but rather a time of returning to our first love and forsaking the idols of ideology that can so poison our life and relationships with those that we live and interact with on a daily basis.