Lenten Reflection from the Reverend Arrington Chambliss

“We are living in a time of deep social and spiritual upheaval. We’re off autopilot, and we’re reassessing everything. I believe that we as a people, and as a nation are in a season of Lent.”  Bob Holmes, Contemplative Monk: Intentional Spirituality Transforms Us

“For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.”   former Archbishop Rowan Williams

These words written by Bob Holmes in the Contemplative Monk, an online resource, spark my curiosity. If he is right and we are in a figurative national Lent, a reassessing of everything that we believe, then how are faith-rooted and spiritual individuals and congregations taking responsibility to reflect on our role in this time of “social and spiritual upheaval”?  And as former Archbishop Rowan Williams names, how are we developing “eyes for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public and private”?

Lent is a Christian church season of forty days, not counting Sundays, which begins on Ash Wednesday, this year, Wednesday, March 6th and ends on the Saturday before Easter, Holy Saturday, April 20th.  The word lent means lengthening of days or spring time. The forty days represent the time of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as he prepared to begin his ministry.

Lent is a season of repentance. Repentance means turning towards God and away from sin. It  is marked by a change in our spiritual and mental attitude and requires self awareness and honesty about what is keeping us distracted or separate from God, ourselves and one another. Lent is a time of focused prayer, self-examination, reflection and fast, in preparation for the coming of Easter, resurrection and new life.

This Lent I have chosen a personal, embodied spiritual practice and fast, however, the preparation for this reflection has led me to choose a public leadership Lenten practice as well. I am thankful for my  colleagues, Hall Kirkham+, Holly Antolini+, Mariama White Hammond+, Liz Steinhauser+ and Mike Stevens who led me to the writing of a contemplative theologian, a philosopher and a former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and the witness of Memorial for Peace and Justice.  Throughout the six weeks of Lent, I will have a weekly conversation with a spiritual and/or grassroots leader to learn how they are understanding the connection between healing and justice - between repentance, forgiveness and justice.  I want to strengthen my leadership by hearing how others tend to or pull at the root causes of this spiritual and social upheaval which I believe is racism.  And I want to discover, how is the Spirit inspiring them to turn towards God and one another in bringing about healing and justice?

I hope you will share how you and/or your community are approaching these questions of healing and justice. In this newsletter, you can learn how others are preparing the way with action, education, spiritual reflection or deepening relationships.  Learn of brave conversations at St. Andrew’s, Ayer about immigration; spiritual renewal and community building through spiritual practice and storytelling with lay leaders from BIJAN (Boston Immigrant Justice Accompaniment Network); and exciting accompaniment and advocacy in Bristol County; and meet leaders of Misa Aleluya, an exciting Latinx episcopal ministry in Worcester, that is a part of ECM’s Prophetic Listening Project.

A respected colleague, the Reverend Holly Antolini, shared a Facebook post from her admired colleague, the Reverend Jonathan Patrick McGinty, a priest in the diocese of Long Island.

“The philosopher Hannah Arendt[1] has been much quoted lately on the matter of falsehoods in politics but in her treatise The Human Condition, she also described the central role of forgiveness in political life. ‘Without being forgiven,’ she wrote, ‘released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity would … be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.’ People would remain ‘victims of consequence.’ The act of forgiving, in her view, is the necessary counterpart to the promises people make to one another—on which society is founded—because it allows the spontaneous possibility of moving beyond the pain of a broken promise. But that also means holding onto the knowledge that the promise was broken in the first place.”

Arendt’s wisdom connects to conversations I have had with those who have taken pilgrimages to the Equal Justice Initiative National Memorial for Peace and Justice which opened to the public on April 26, 2018. The Memorial is “the nation’s first dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence”.  I am grateful for the leadership of Bryan Stevenson and many others as they envisioned such an important memorial that places before us a history foundational to our country’s spiritual and social upheaval. Pastor Jim Wallis underscores this fact with his claim that “America's problem with race has deep roots, with the country's foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation's original sin.  It's time we right this unacceptable wrong."[2]   

Our “nation’s spiritual and social upheaval” must be examined in the light of the deep roots of American racism.  The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ book review, "A Nervous Breakdown in the Body Politic”,  examining what enabled the rise of evil in Hitler’s Germany, offers helpful caution and encouragement for this reflection.

“For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.”[3]

Williams further explains the need for deepening awareness of how we collude in “small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice.”  He encourages us to awaken to what we “tolerate or ignore or underestimate that opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit.”   

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important.

What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

A network of wise colleagues and the insight of Bob Holmes, Hannah Arendt and former Archbishop Rowan Williams prepare the way for my Holy Lent.  I enter this Lenten season of repentance, with the prayer, Holy God, turn me even more fully and honestly towards where You are already at work healing and creating whole, equitable and just communities.  

In these next forty days, I will learn about healing that is already taking root in communities like Brockton Interfaith led by Will Dickerson and the Mission Institute led by Diane D’Souza and Katie Caprnst and until recently Myriam Hernandez Jennings and the healing practice of spiritual reflection among BIJAN leaders accompanying immigrant neighbors and siblings.

If you have a suggestion of a community or leader who inspires your understanding of racial healing and justice, please email me their name and contact information at arrington@episcopalcitymission.org. I am thankful for how my relationships with you, call me into the deeper waters of new life.

With Gratitude and Blessings,

The Reverend Arrington Chambliss

[1] Hannah Arendt is a German Jewish philosopher born in 1906. She was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s as Hitler came to power. She is best known for her major works, including “The Human Condition,” “On Violence,” “Truth and Politics,” “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and especially MsAS “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” which grew out of her coverage of the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker.

[2] Wallis, J. 2016 “America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America”, Brazos Press.

[3] Rowan Williams is described in the NewStatesman America is “an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman.” Williams, R. May 1, 2016.New AmericanStatesman (UK) “A Nervous Breakdown for the Body Politic”