In the Christian tradition, Lent is a time of prayer fasting and almsgiving. It is a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter.
We cannot celebrate Jesus’ Easter victory over sin and suffering without reflection, repentance and the renewal of our commitment to God. The deep reflections on our shortcomings and how we may overcome them ought to have personal as well as a communal dimensions. The personal dimension leads to repentance and the resolve to be better and do better with God’s help. The communal dimension leads to the renewal of our commitment to the ways in which we will serve God, particularly regarding the way we treat other people and address social issues.
In preparation for his ministry, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness praying amid the temptation to have his personal needs met in ways that would contravene His commitment to God and to His ministry. Interestingly, the first three basic human needs identified by Abraham Maslow are identical to needs that Jesus was tempted to fulfill.
- Physiological needs. Jesus was tempted to turn the stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger.
- Safety needs. Jesus was tempted to act recklessly in a moment of vulnerability, and to force God’s hand to keep Him safe.
- Love and belonging. Jesus was tempted to abuse His influence and sense of connection by usurping the position and power of God.
In response to the temptations, Jesus quoted Scriptures, which, when carefully contemplated, point to the personal and communal dimensions of our relationship with God. The personal dimension relates specifically to our integrity through our faithful commitment to surrender our lives to the will of God. The communal dimension is directly linked to our commitment to social justice, which cannot be divorced from how we express our faith in God’s providence to fulfil our basic human needs in ways that do not impede others from fulfilling their needs.
Social justice is justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.
Survival needs & fair access to food
At a time when He was proving His dependence on God, Jesus’ response to the temptation of satisfy His hunger was to declare that in our quest to have our material needs met, we must be guided by the principles of the Word of God.
The abundance of food is more of a problem in the world than is hunger. There is a fine line between need and greed. The truth is that there is more food available in the world than we are led to believe. There is enough and more for everyone. The problem is the inequitable access to food, shelter and health, which are necessary for survival.
Some Christian religious denominations glorify poverty as an honorable spiritual and material state that is sanctified by God. There are others who teach a “prosperity gospel,” claiming that excessive financial wealth and excellent health are always in the will of God.
HUNGER FAST FACTS
- There is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone on the planet.
- As many as 811 million people worldwide go to bed hungry each night.
- Small farmers, herders, and fishermen produce about 70 percent of the global food supply, yet they are especially vulnerable to food insecurity – poverty and hunger are most acute among rural populations.
- Conflict is a cause and consequence of hunger. In 2020, conflict was the primary driver of hunger for 99.1 million people in 23 countries
- An estimated 14 million children under the age of five worldwide suffer from severe acute malnutrition, also known as severe wasting, yet only 25 percent of acutely malnourished children have access to lifesaving treatment.
Source: Action Against Hunger
I don’t find either of these approaches to be satisfactory as they can be used to oppress people in one way or another.
On one hand, glorifying poverty leads people to passively accept poverty and deprives them of the opportunity to make the required effort to achieve financial independence and a better standard of living. On the other hand, those who do not achieve financial success or are in ill-health may be led to believe that they are inadequate, sinful, or not following God’s will.
A constant stream of donations from Christian charities and churches disempowers people and creates dependency on others. From my observation and experience, most people in need want to develop their talents, find sustainable employment and become self-sufficient to support their families.
While I don’t believe that God intends anyone to live in poverty and that there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have as much as we want and more, I believe that Christians should create and support programs that provide sustainable access to food, shelter and health.
Need for personal safety & criminal justice that is blind to stereotypes
During his forty-day sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus must have had many moments when He wondered whether God was present, protecting and supporting him. In a moment of vulnerability, He was tempted to act recklessly, putting His safety in jeopardy to test God’s faithfulness. Jesus’ response to the temptation was that testing God’s faithfulness was not an option. It was a reminder that as people of faith we have an obligation to honour the power and provision of God by acting responsibly while trusting Him to take care of our physical safety.
The need for personal safety is also related to our survival needs. We are to rely on God for protection, while acting in wisdom as we take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from harm. We should question our fears and the ways in which we treat others in our quest to protect ourselves.
Do we hold stereotypical beliefs about people who we perceive to threaten our safety? What conscious or unconscious biases do we hold towards others?
The suffocation murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin brought to the fore, public debates on racial profiling, systemic racism, bias and other behaviours that are rooted in fear and the need for personal safety. Those we stereotype are usually marginalized persons who have been victimized by the absence of social justice. The legacies of the tragedies of human history – slavery, colonialism, communism, war, to name a few – have deprived many persons of social justice. The absence of social justice sows the seeds of illiteracy, joblessness, hunger, homelessness, hunger and poverty, which are at the root of criminality and social hostilities, which adversely and disproportionately affect groups of people who are unfairly stereotyped and labelled as a threat to public safety.
In the quest for personal safety, we must not ignore the issues that impact the safety of others and the collective safety of our communities, countries, and the world. As long as we curse out the abusers of law enforcement, punish them occasionally and continue to accept politically correct behavior from those who are too scared to confront their own hidden prejudices, we will never eradicate racial profiling and other forms of abuse in law enforcement. We need to deepen our collective understanding of the fears, beliefs, and responses of people who use the authority entrusted to them to abuse those who are defenseless and vulnerable.
By listening and learning together, we release judgement of others and begin to dismantle our fears, stereotypes and biases – whether conscious or unconscious. Together, we see the need to value the common good above the need to hold on to our fears that are based on stereotypes and biases about other people. This takes time.
Let us work consistently and patiently, guided by the hand of “the Ruler who delights in justice” as we co-create with Him, a better world where social justice prevails for all people. Advocating programs that support conflict resolution, equal access to justice and legal representation, education and jobs are some ways in which Christians can help to mitigate the risks of criminality and threats to public safety.
Need for belonging & respect for love of God and people
The third temptation that Jesus faced was to abuse the power of the love of God and of people. His integrity was being tested. Would His ability to overcome forty days of fasting, separation and personal suffering, confer a sense of invincibility leading Him to exalt Himself above God in the eyes of humans? Jesus, like any leader or person of influence wanted to be loved by many. Being loved is a legitimate human need. Throughout His ministry, Jesus exhorted His followers to live together in love, to be known for their love for one another.
Any authority entrusted to us by God is for the upliftment of people, not for their exploitation.
Persons in positions of authority – whether as a parent, pastor or president – should not abuse the love, loyalty and support of those over whom they lead. Even worse, is when the abuse is shrouded in motivations that purport to be aligned with God’s will.
Proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” are famous televangelists based in the US and have congregations numbering in the thousands and followings worldwide in the millions. According to religion columnist and commentator, Cathleen Falsani, “Nowhere has the prosperity gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class… Told that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and favor, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually.”
A prosperity preaching televangelist asked his congregation to purchase him a $65M private jet. His initial request reportedly entailed asking 200,000 followers to donate $300 each to fund the effort. The intention to purchase the private jet was “to help empower the ministry to reach the lost and change precious lives around the world.”
Evangelism and missionary work are areas in which Christians can responsibly influence the world. Serving on the frontlines to fulfill basic human needs provides an excellent vantage point to observe the systemic issues that create barriers to education, health, food, and shelter. It is from this vantage point that appeals for policies and programs that establish social justice can and should be made by Christians.
Our Lenten journey quite rightly calls us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Lent takes us through Jesus’ experience with temptation and surrendering in faith to God’s will for us and for the world. The Lenten journey brings us to reflect, repent and renew our commitment to God through faith and service. Our reflections on Jesus’ temptations and his responses should lead us to acknowledge that the fulfilment of our human needs is a legitimate pursuit, but not at the expense of others. The best way to do this is to be advocates and active participants in the quest for social justice.
Christ in you, the hope of glory. That’s why glory matters.