An Anabaptist Lent?

by Vic Theissen

The season of Lent is upon us once again. Growing up in a Canadian Mennonite church, I heard nothing whatsoever about Lent and it is only in the last decade that I have encountered Christians (even some Anabaptists!) who take Lent seriously as a time of preparation for our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Today, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are important in my calendar, and every year I consider what I can give up for the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter as I reflect on the last week of Jesus’ life.

But as an Anabaptist I am uncomfortable that the Christian calendar (and the creeds?) seems to be interested only in the fact that Jesus was born, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and then rose again on the third day, as if Jesus’ life and ministry are not worth commemorating. So I ask myself if Lent is an opportunity to reflect not only on Jesus’ last week but also on the years of ministry which led up to and precipitated the events of that last week.

In the past few years, Anabaptists in the UK have participated in debates on the atonement. I have written on this elsewhere and do not want to repeat my arguments here, but I want to highlight that this debate concerned the reasons for Jesus’ crucifixion. What did Jesus say and do that made the “powers” want to kill him?

Traditionally, most of the blame for the decision to crucify Jesus has been placed on the shoulders of the Jewish authorities (the chief priests, scribes and elders who collaborated with the Roman authorities). Their job included collecting taxes (for Rome) and maintaining order (crowd control). Rome liked to use local collaborators to do their work for them and rewarded those collaborators well. That does not mean these collaborators were inherently evil, but they were part of a Domination System (a system favouring the privileged few) that was severely oppressing the Jews of first-century Palestine.

There is evidence that living conditions for the majority of those Jews was steadily worsening at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Many had been forced off their land by debts and were working poor and challenged the Domination System, representing an obvious danger to the Jewish authorities, who rightly feared Roman reprisals if they did not act against this trouble-maker.

Blaming the Jewish authorities for Jesus’ death is very different from blaming the Jewish people or the “crowds”. The Jewish authorities did not represent the Jewish people, and these crowds had no love for their authorities. So the crowd that demanded Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, was obviously hand-picked by the authorities.

But while the Jewish authorities clearly played a role in Jesus’ crucifixion, the Roman authorities under Pilate killed Jesus. The Gospels depict Pilate as a conflicted man who saw no reason to kill Jesus and washed his hands of the responsibility for Jesus’ death. This depiction does not match what is otherwise known of Pilate, a ruthless governor who would not have hesitated to have Jesus crucified if the Jewish authorities presented him as a threat to Roman authority. It seems more likely that conditions in the early church led the Gospel writers to minimise the involvement of Rome and assign more blame to the Jews.

In any event, I suggest the Roman and Jewish authorities conspired to kill Jesus because of Jesus’ teachings and demonstrations, which exposed and challenged the violence and injustice of the Domination System. Jesus knew his words and actions would lead inevitably to the cross but clearly felt it was necessary to go to Jerusalem, to follow this path to the cross.

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus encouraged his disciples to follow the same path, saying: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

According to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, this verse is key to our understanding of Lent and the last week of Jesus’ life. In their book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, they maintain that following Jesus (discipleship) means to follow the way of the cross, the path to Jerusalem, by joining Jesus in exposing and challenging the Domination System, and by centring ourselves in God, committing our hearts and lives to God and to God’s passion for compassion, justice and nonviolence. Lent is a time to renew and reflect on this commitment and what it means for our lives.

This all sounds very Anabaptist and suggests that, as we consider what we give up for Lent this year, we do not limit ourselves to thinking about our bodies (giving up chocolate, alcohol, fast food, etc.) but consider how we can use this time to remember Jesus’ ministry and follow his example: to live in solidarity with the poor, to expose and challenge the Domination System of our day, or to have a positive impact on the environment.

Some people are giving up their time to initiate and/or participate in weekly peace vigils; some are giving up the mainstream media and using alternatives like Al Jazeera; some are going to think “fair trade” every time they enter a shop; some are going to switch to energy-efficient light bulbs; and others are going to write letters to government officials or newspaper editors, encouraging the end of support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Let’s make Lent a time for Anabaptists to renew their commitment to follow Jesus on the way to the cross.