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"Is Not This the Sort of Fast That Pleases Me...?"
Lenten Reflections on the
Pledge of Nonviolence

by Jim McGinnis

Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me -- it is Yahweh who speaks -- to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the person you see to be naked and not turn from your own kin? ... If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry, and relief to the oppressed... (Isaiah 58: 6-10)

It is clear that the kind of fasting God wants from us during this Lenten season has more to do with sacrificial love than with things.   The kind of self-denial God asks of us focuses on others more than on ourselves.  What we are to let go of in a special way during Lent are things like clenched fists, wicked words, the yokes or burdens we place on others, and a self-centeredness that prevents us from responding to the needs of people who are hungry or homeless, sometimes even in our own families.  God wants us to focus more on "doís" than "donítís, and the "Family Pledge of Nonviolence" is a practical everyday way to "do the doís".   

1.  To respect self and others.
During Holy Week, we read the four "suffering servant" passages from Isaiah describing the Messiah as a gentle lamb offering himself completely for others.   In the first of these, the Messiah is described as one who would "not break the bruised reed nor quench the flickering flame" (Is 42: 1-4).   Jesus embraces broken people, encourages them and heals them.  This is our vocation too, as followers of Jesus.  Instead of being quick to criticize others and perhaps quench their flickering flames, we can fan those flames, especially in children.  We can regard each child in our lives as a flickering flame -- having lots of potential but often failing to live up to it (not unlike ourselves, perhaps).  We can encourage their strengths and praise them for their efforts.  We can catch them doing good things and let them know, rather than always catching them doing bad things.  People who make a habit of affirming others inject positive feelings into situations at home, school, the workplace, neighborhood and church.  And such positive responses have a way of catching on.  In the face of escalating meanness in our society -- on the street, on the highway, on the talk shows -- the followers of Jesus can replace wicked words with kind words, hurtful touches with loving touches, angry faces with smiling faces, and random acts of violence with random acts of kindness.  One way during Lent to follow Jesus on his journey to Calvary is to adopt his affirming, embracing way, especially toward those needing consolation.

2. To communicate better.  When we are angry, we can try something else than clenched fists and wicked words, which only escalate conflicts.  Sharing our feelings honestly, including feelings of anger, but without name-calling or threatening words or gestures, is a step toward resolving conflicts peacefully and healing broken relationships.  "I-messages", where I state my feelings and needs, are much more consistent with a life of nonviolence than "you-messages", where I blame you.  It is during Lent they we encounter those Gospel words of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to walk the extra mile.  Jesus wasnít asking us to stay in abusive situations.  No,  he was offering us a creative way of stopping hurtful behavior.  "Transforming initiatives" is one phrase being used for these creative responses to conflict.  Sometimes, for instance, self-effacing humor in the face of a put-down or challenge to fight throws the aggressor off guard and helps to defuse a volatile situation.  Clever verbal responses can head off a fight, but generally these need to be practiced ahead of time.

As for those "yokes" that Isaiah says we are to do away with, we can all place yokes on others when we try to make them feel guilty, when we burden them with our unreal expectations, or when we bind them to decisions we make without asking for their input.   Family meetings in which all family members participate in decisions about family plans, family conflicts, or family chores are important alternatives to the yokes that adults often place on children.  But anyone in authority -- whether as teachers, employers, pastors, legislators -- can yoke those they are supposed to serve.  Practicing Jesusí model of leadership -- authority through service -- is a practical Lenten practice, a real dying to self and to the need to be in total control of a group or situation. 

3.  To listen. In the second "suffering servant" passage, Isaiah describes the Messiah as one who speaks words of consolation.

The Lord God has given me a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning, he opens my ear that I may hear.
(Isaiah 50: 7)

It is precisely because he opened himself up in silence each morning to listen to Godís promptings that Jesus was able to be the kind of compassionate person we are all to strive to become, especially during this Lenten season of self-sacrifice.  Itís a sacrifice to listen carefully to others, as well as to God.  We have to set aside our own agenda, resist the temptation to break in to answer or refute, and instead, focus completely on the other.  To drop what we are doing or thinking to focus on another is really dying to self.  How attentive Jesus was to others, especially to those society deemed inferior.  "Let the children come to me", Jesus scolded his disciples who were pushing them away.  People with leprosy, tax collectors, women, sinners, Samaritans and other foreigners, all these got Jesusí special attention. 

We can learn an important lesson from one of Jesusí dearest disciples in our own time -- Dorothy Day.  When asked why she would "waste" an afternoon listening to semi-coherent  homeless persons, she responded that there was nothing more valuable she could possibly do with her time.  Those of us who find it hard to really listen generally need to slow down a little, build in some latitude in our daily schedule, and consciously and frequently reflect on the mind and heart of Jesus as the "available one".  Beginning each day with a period of prayerful silence before God can help attune us to Godís presence in each person and situation of our day.  Such "centering prayer" helps us to be ready, willing, and able to stop and center on others whenever the need presents itself.

4.  To forgive.  Nothing is more "Lenten", and more difficult, than to forgive.  Jesus shows us the extent to which we are to go in following him.  It is not so much his mathematical calculation thatís impressive -- "seventy times seven" -- as it is his example.  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."  These words from the heart and lips of Jesus as he was nailed to the cross challenge us to resist the societal clamor to "fry criminals" and our own inner clamor to get even whenever we are slighted or hurt.  At a time when meanness and in-your-face retaliation seem to be the norm, we can show the world a different face.  We can let go of grudges, take the first step at healing a broken relationship, resist responding in kind when someone yells at us on the highway or is sharp with us in a store.  Especially during Lent we can be mindful of those familiar words in the Lordís Prayer -- "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us..."  A video worth seeing each Lent is DEAD MAN WALKING.  This story of Sr. Helen Prejeanís ministry with people on death row and people who are the victims of crime is a graphic reminder of the need for the followers of Jesus to challenge societal norms and public policies that sanction revenge.

5.  To respect nature. In many parts of the country, Lent begins in the depths of winter.  Winter is an appropriate time to hibernate a little, to be more prayerful, and to sense the cycle of death and rebirth.  As Holy Week approaches, spring begins to show her face.  And with Easter there is the yearly glorious rebirth of the whole of creation.  Our Lenten journeys often include consuming less and living more simply.  This is an appropriate reminder that we should be living more simply year-round, to preserve the earthís limited resources, and ensure its richness for generations to come.  Jesusí words of judgment in Matthew 25: 31-45 are clear -- "whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me."  In our own time, we are becoming more aware that the "least of these" refers not just to the human species, but to all species of life.  As Paul writes, "the whole of creation is groaning" and more so today because of reckless consumption that is destroying the planet.  Chief Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux was very wise when he said that "lack of respect for growing living things soon leads to lack of respect for humans too."  Respecting nature by consuming less and recycling more, by observing and listening more carefully to its rhythms, and enjoying more gratefully its beauty and diversity are Lenten practices that make sense in every season.

6.  To play creatively. This component of the Pledge of Nonviolence invites us "to avoid entertainment that makes violence look exciting, funny, or acceptable."  Sports are so much a part of American life and can be a healthy component in living life to its fullest.  But sports can also have negative effects on individuals and on the community, when greed enters in, when the message is winning at all costs and when verbal taunting and physical violence are added to the picture.  Some sports are more violent than others.  Perhaps part of our Lenten sacrifice might be not to watch or participate in those sports that are unnecessarily violent.  Violence in the media is a growing problem affecting all ages, but children in particular.   Another Lenten sacrifice might be not to watch shows that make violence look "exciting, funny, or acceptable."  If we want our children to learn from our example, we adults might look at our own TV viewing and the "log in our own eye" before pointing to the sliver in the eyes of others.

Some positive alternatives to violent entertainment during Lent include playing some fun or cooperative games with family members.  This is clearly a practice that makes sense year-round, but sometimes we need a special time to begin or renew the practice in hopes that it will catch on and continue beyond Easter.  The custom of "family nights" has largely disappeared from family life.  JUST FAMILY NIGHTS is a wonderful resource for families and congregations who want to recapture this tradition and occasionally add a social action dimension to these intergenerational activities.

7.  To be courageous.  Lent is a season of courage.  Jesus dared to confront the hypocrisy, the lack of caring, the discrimination, and the violence of his own time.  They crucified him for it.  In accepting death by crucifixion, Jesus showed us the extent to which our love must go if we follow him.  "Greater love than this no one has than to lay down their life for others".  Dr. King followed Jesus.  They killed him on April 4.  Archbishop Romero followed Jesus.  They killed him on March 24.  During Lent we honor these contemporary Christian martyrs, but we honor them most when we follow their example of standing up for the rights of others, resisting violence, and serving the poor.  Like Dr. King who challenged the "Giant Triplets of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism," we can challenge our governmentís rush to war with Iraq and failure to address the needs of the poor.
Like Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus and Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross, we can reach out to the victims of violence and injustice in our own communities.  We can mentor young people struggling to make it.  We can pair or partner with families or congregations struggling against racial or economic injustice.  We can assist at a shelter or even provide shelter ourselves for those who are abused or trying to escape a bad situation.  "Sharing our bread with the hungry or sheltering the homeless poor" can be a little risky if we go beyond donating money and become personally involved.  Lenten sacrifices should generate some savings to be placed in the "Operation Rice Bowl" container on our dinner table.  But itís the sacrifice of our time and the courage to become personally involved that Jesus wants even more from those of us who are physically able to serve in this way.  So we ask ourselves at the beginning of our Lenten journey and repeat this question, perhaps every Friday this Lent --How can we be like Simon or Veronica and relieve or challenge some of the suffering that continues to be experienced in the Body of Christ?  

Conclusion. But God doesnít just challenge us during Lent.  God also promises to be with us as we dare to say "yes" to the call of Jesus.  Returning to the words of Yahweh through the prophet Isaiah:

 If you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry, and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness and your shadows become like noon.  Yahweh will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places.  Yahweh will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry.  (Isaiah 58: 6-11)

When we take this "Pledge of Nonviolence" and try to live it daily, God gives us all the help and relief we need in those desert places, and God makes us sources of light and life for others.  Through us and the thousands of other families and groups of caring people, God is truly creating circles of peace around the world, circles of peace that are beginning to break the cycle of violence.

The Institute for Peace and Justice
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