Ash Wednesday thoughts on wilderness, identifying with Jesus, and the tenacity of a few Colombian human rights workers
by Samantha E. Lioi
(This blog has been edited for length. Download the full article here.)
Driven by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is in the wilderness with a lot of people these days. It’s crowded, and the scarcity of resources keenly felt. Even so, it is a place of surprising and dogged hope.
Last July I traveled to Colombia for two weeks on a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation. A truly international group of us – from Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ethiopia, India, and Illinois – became a team who would learn from, accompany, and support the CPT Colombia team and their partners, especially leaders of peasant-farmer or campesino organizations struggling to remain on their land or return to it.
Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness.
More than 5 million Colombians have been driven from their homes by armed men paid by international companies who will strip the land of resources until it is barren, then move on to take more. Colombians who have done small-scale mining on their ancestral land for generations have been driven into a wilderness of displacement, into life as refugees in their own country. They have organized to advocate for themselves, their communities and their livelihoods, continuing day after day, month after month into years to call for what is right, to demand that their land, their dignity, and their lives be respected.
Since July, I haven’t found very many words to speak about my time in Colombia. But when I remembered Lent was coming, one of the Ash Wednesday texts from the second letter to the Corinthians reminded me of the Colombian human rights workers. And it’s also talking to us.
Now is the time to be reconciled, it says – to God, yes, and to each other. Now is the day of salvation, that is, holistic well-being and abundant life, peace between parent and child and man and woman and paramilitary and campesino, and peace between peoples and nations. This is the hope of our faith.
So about hope.
Here in the U.S., especially among Anglos, despair is a very different choice than it is in Colombia. If we give up hope, if we are no longer able or willing to care, if we become paralyzed by the horror and injustice of the truth of so many people’s lives, and if we become overwhelmed by the weight of evil in the world, nothing happens to our homes or our livelihoods. Something happens to the kind of people we are – our character, our integrity – but we do not, in choosing apathy or hopelessness, immediately put our lives at risk.
It’s not that I never experienced fear while I was in Colombia. But my experience of being vulnerable to violence felt so minor compared to the fear of our Colombian partners that it mainly served to help me understand my U.S. passport-privilege more deeply. Unlike some of our partners, I have no idea what it feels like to receive threats to my life and the lives of my family members, season after season, because I am telling the truth and calling for justice. Recently, the high-profile community of Las Pavas, whose people have returned to their land, has been accused of never having lived there to begin with, and are being prosecuted for invading and occupying private land – victims and survivors turned into criminals. No wonder one finds Jesus among them.
When I came back home and resumed my day to day U.S. life, I asked myself a lot of questions: Why do this work explicitly as a Christian, when Christians are failing to act like Jesus left and right? Do I really believe the kingdom of God is coming? It seems far away. The wolf lying down with the lamb and not eating it? Really? Every tear wiped away from our eyes, and no more death? Really? The end of death?
The end of death?
But as these next 40 days of Lent stretch out in front of us, I still come back, hauling my doubt and cynicism, desiring to follow Jesus into the desert again. I must believe this craziness. The Bible itself–crazy and beautiful and comforting and deeply challenging to status-quos everywhere. A God who brings life out of death. A God who receives our most disordered, dysfunctional parts and gets them singing.
Almost as unbelievably, our partners in Colombia keep going. With a faith and hope I wonder at and don’t quite understand, they keep struggling. They keep imagining a time of justice, living their belief that people are created with the capacity to treat each other with dignity. How can I quit if they haven’t quit? What keeps me from being as bold and persistent as they are?
Somehow underneath my temptations to despair and give up, I do believe that all creatures, all that was made, all the universe, was created from love and for love. That this love is underneath everything, that there is plenty of it. That there is a pull, a wind, the Spirit of Jesus whispering among us, and perhaps shouting above the din, “Come with me and be awake to your hope and your fear.” Beneath the sounds of killing and anxious constant motion, and in the spaces of clarity and quiet within us, the voice of a poor Nazarene teacher pulling us into the new things that are coming.
Now is the day of salvation – wholesale healing. Now is the time to choose life, to choose a practice, something simple that will enable us, at the very least, to be aware of our own resistance to following Jesus. To return to our God, or at least to admit we don’t know how, for that is a step toward a wilderness that could teach us something. God, with a great sense of humor, trusts us.
Hope for the duration, for the long haul – modeled for us by people who could have given up long ago.