Ash Wednesday and the Tyranny of Approval

by Jesse Steven Wheeler

Some religious leaders and social activists flock to power and influence like moths to a flame. You find them at Oval Office photo ops and national prayer breakfasts, on talk-radio shows and satellite television, or standing beside various world dictators. These are often the champions of imperial religion, of which Christian Nationalism and Christian Zionism are prime examples. For others, the primary temptation is approval or professional respect. These can be found in seminary or university halls and writing for erudite periodicals, or recording their latest podcast and virtue signaling on social media. Each, however, runs the serious risk of “institutional capture,” of perpetuating or becoming tools of the powers and systems that they perhaps once sought to influence. And, it can seriously impact their ability to stand up for justice and truth, especially if their “own side” happens to be in power.

Enter the cross.

Today is Ash Wednesday and marks, in accordance with western tradition, the first day of Lent. So much more than just a month of material deprivation, the Lenten season represents an intentional attempt to refocus our energies, ambitions, and attention upon the cross of Christ. It is a recognition that Jesus lived his whole life in light of the cross and an invitation for us to do the same. So, in this season of introspection and sacrifice, we recognize that the cross is indicative not of a one-and-done transaction but of an embodied, cruciform way of life—enacted over the next 40 days via “the three pillars” of the Lent: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

As it happens, the lectionary readings for today are from Matthew 6:1-6;16-18:

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues [or churches, by implication] and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

[. . .]

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

Many of us live and die for the approval or respect of others. As we obsess over how we look through the eyes of others, we forget to see ourselves through the eyes of God. And in response, our public lives begin to resemble a performance. In seeking status or saving face, thousands of decisions are made each day in the service of crafting a public persona, from the clothes we wear and the cars we drive to the careers we pursue and the causes we champion. Politics is all about performance. Even our spiritual life becomes a performance. Consequently, a schism develops between our inner, private selves and our publicly cultivated personas. While some seek adoration and the social power that comes with it, others live with the pain of failing to live up to the illusory projections of others.

Meanwhile, there are those who would manipulate our insecurities for their own personal, social, financial, or political gain. This is done through the promotion of conspicuous consumption; cultish notions of identity, purpose, and belonging; xenophobic militarism; dehumanizing institutional and corporate cultures; ideological loyalty tests; or even promises of spiritual power and divine blessing. Recently, our friends at Voices from the Holy Land [VFHL] hosted a screening of the film “Till Kingdom Come,” powerfully highlighting this dynamic and the deeply manipulative practices and ideologies through which Christian Zionist charities raise funds for settler-colonial expansion. I was also privileged to see a screening of the remarkable upcoming film “Israelism,” exploring similar dynamics from within the American Jewish community. Both films come highly recommended.

However, finding rest within God’s approving gaze and the blessed assurance of Christ’s unending love and unmerited grace provides for us the psychosocial security required to live as whole, integral persons. And, as persons of integrity, we can resist the tyranny of approval and the corrupting influences of those powers and systems that would seek to capture or silence us for their own destructive ends.

This is where social change and social justice require personal integrity, and often why our leaders so often fail us. Are we willing to stand for what’s right, at the possible cost of friends, family, career opportunities, funding, or even our very freedom? Are we able to withstand spurious accusations of disloyalty, radicalism, or even antisemitism in our commitment to truth and justice? The high-profile examples of Kenneth Roth, James Cavallaro, Stephen Sizer, and even Ilhan Omar come to mind, but so too do those brave souls who everyday refuse to abide by anti-boycott laws at great personal cost, as does the remarkable example of Muhammad Halabi. (I can only hope to ever be so brave.)

Like the prophets before him, it was Jesus’ commitment to truth that would ultimately cost him his life at the hands of a corrupt religio-political establishment eager not to rock the imperial Roman boat. During this Lenten season, we look toward the cross of Christ and the cruciform way of life he embodied. God, grant us the courage and integrity to follow his example.

Adapted from: Wheeler, Jesse Steven. Serving a Crucified King: Meditations on Faith, Politics, and the Unyielding Pursuit of God’s Reign. Resource Publications. 2021.

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