Lent 2020: A Call to Prayer, Fasting, and Repentance Leading to Action
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:21 NRSV
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. —Ephesians 6:12 KJV
We can no longer pretend otherwise: The United States is in the midst of a struggle for its very soul. Are we merely collections of self-interest and partisan identities or are we “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?”
This is a moment of spiritual peril and decision. Nothing less than the soul of our nation is at stake.
On one level, the outward and visible form of the divisions and tensions among us as a nation are political, social, and even ideological. Yet, the deeper and invisible causes are spiritual and moral. When selfishness is exalted above sacrifice for the good of each other, the soul of the nation is at stake. When falsehood is exalted and truth is slain in the public square, the soul of the nation is at stake. When toxic politics manipulates public faith, the soul of the nation is at stake. When fear, hate, and violence shape our politics and anger governs our speech, the soul of the nation is at stake.
In another time of national spiritual crisis, President Abraham Lincoln issued an appeal to leaders and people of the nation to summon “the better angels of our nature.” As elders in the churches, we believe that we are in a spiritual battle between our better angels and worst demons.
Now is not a time for playing the superficial politics of the right or the left. Now is a time for the deeper spiritual engagement with the realities that are beneath our conflicts in order that God might help and heal the “soul of the nation and the integrity of our faith,” as our Reclaiming Jesus declaration called for.
The season of Lent is traditionally a time for deeper soul searching, reflection, and repentance that leads to renewed action and commitment to living out the teachings and the way of Jesus of Nazareth.
As elders who have called the church to reclaim Jesus, we now issue “Lent 2020: A Call for Prayer, Fasting, and Repentance that Leads to Action.”
We invite individuals, clergy, national churches, and local congregations into a Lenten season of prayer, fasting, and repentance built around practices of daily prayer, weekly fasting, and reflection with spiritual discernment that can lead to more faithful action.
We covenant together to repent from both our personal and social sins, to pray for our nation and all nations, and to fast as a reminder to discipline self-interest, idolatry, and division for the good of living God’s love in the world.
Prayer calls us to give up control.
We pray to return to God’s two commandments on which hang all the law — to love God and love our neighbor.
“Love God with your whole heart, whole soul, and whole mind” — which means to repent and remove any national, racial, or political ideologies and idolatries that have replaced loving God with our whole selves.
“And love your neighbor as yourself” — which means to love all our neighbors that we have forgotten to love (no exceptions), including those who are different from us, who disagree with us, and, especially, those of another race or nationality whom we are directly instructed to love by the words and example of Jesus.
And we should also reach out, in particular, to those who are different from us or disagree with us politically, even in our same congregations and local communities.
Fasting calls us to redirect our attention.
We will fast in ways commensurate with our health, situation, and communities on one day per week — on Wednesdays beginning with Ash Wednesday.
Fasting weekly can help us to stop, pay attention, wake up, interrupt our schedules, go deeper, and listen for God and the Holy Spirit in ways that might lead us to new places in our hearts and minds. This weekly fast will begin in Lent and could continue until the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Repentance calls us to change our hearts.
Repentance in all of our traditions means much more than shame or guilt and feeling sorry; it means to stop, turn around, and go in a whole new direction. These spiritual disciplines could help take us out of our strategies and control —by admitting that we don’t have all the answers — and to go deeper together to hear the voice of God, often in the still, small whispers of the Spirit, leading us to better places.
These spiritual practices can help us to answer questions like: What are we called from and what are we called to? Who are we called from and who are we called to? Spiritual disciplines can even be targeted: Who and what are we praying and fasting for, and what might our praying and fasting open us to do?
We confess that as church elders who have often engaged in action, we are not fully sure what to do in the growing national crisis in which we now find ourselves. We therefore hope that the disciplines of daily prayer and weekly fasting will clarify and draw all of us to the decisive, prophetic, and reconciling actions required in this time of great crisis. Because, as the New Testament teaches us, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Through praying and fasting together, particularly with people who disagree politically, we hope to find actions that might bring more people together — even across the margins of previous voting blocs — so that we can find and pursue what is best for the country.
Regular spiritual disciplines can deepen our faith, inform our citizenship decisions, and lead us to find the courage to stand up for the most vulnerable and, if need be, to protect our very democracy.
We see this Lenten call to fast, pray, and repent as a time of purification for ourselves and as a time of preparation and expectation for the kinds of action that can lead us forward instead of backward. How can we anchor ourselves in the kind of love that is not safe, but saving?
Going to God
Going to God means tuning out the constant tumult crowding our heads in order to tune our hearts to quieter voices revealing God's holy intentions for this time.
As U.S. church elders, we confess that we don’t consult with God seriously and frequently enough. This Lenten call and these spiritual disciplines are meant to take us to God with regularity during this time of national and faith crisis. Regular conversation with God can be transforming in any culture and especially those in crisis — and it can lead to better conversation with each other. We must go to God with choices and decisions that are political, social, racial, and economic — these are not just personal decisions.
We offer a summary of our Reclaiming Jesus declaration here. More than at the time since it was released in 2018, it is time to renew it now. In 2020, it is time to reclaim Jesus.
In a time of moral, political, and theological crisis, let us go to God.
Bishop Carroll Baltimore Bishop Global Alliance Interfaith Networks
Dr. Amos Brown, Chair, Social Justice Commission, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
Rev. Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
Marie Dennis, Senior Advisor/Co-President (2007-2019), Pax Christi International
Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus, Reformed Church in America
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Rev. Dr. Richard Hamm, Retired General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Dr. Otis Moss Jr., Pastor Emeritus, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church
Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Fr. Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation
Dr. Ron Sider, President Emeritus, Evangelicals for Social Action
Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners
Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, Minister, Bethany Memorial Church (Disciples of Christ)
Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network
Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo, Co-Founder, Red Letter Christians
Dr. Will Willimon, Professor, Duke Divinity School and Bishop (retired), United Methodist Church
Rev. Dr. James Forbes, President & Founder, Healing of the Nations Foundation and Preaching Professor, Union Theological Seminary
A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis
We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.
It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
It is often the duty of Christian leaders, especially elders, to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God.
This letter comes from a retreat on Ash Wednesday, 2018. In this season of Lent, we feel deep lamentations for the state of our nation, and our own hearts are filled with confession for the sins we feel called to address. The true meaning of the word repentance is to turn around. It is time to lament, confess, repent, and turn. In times of crisis, the church has historically learned to return to Jesus Christ.
Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.
The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.
What we believe leads us to what we must reject. Our “Yes” is the foundation for our “No.” What we confess as our faith leads to what we confront. Therefore, we offer the following six affirmations of what we believe, and the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith. We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis.
I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We, as followers of Jesus, must clearly reject the use of racial bigotry for political gain that we have seen. In the face of such bigotry, silence is complicity. In particular, we reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. Further, any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fears, or language must be named as public sin—one that goes back to the foundation of our nation and lingers on. Racial bigotry must be antithetical for those belonging to the body of Christ, because it denies the truth of the gospel we profess.
II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God. We lament when such practices seem publicly ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and churches. We support the courageous truth-telling voices of women, who have helped the nation recognize these abuses. We confess sexism as a sin, requiring our repentance and resistance.
III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets, and we need to remind our churches that God makes the treatment of the “strangers” among us a test of faith (Leviticus 19:33-34). We won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children, and we will resist repeated attempts to deny health care to those who most need it. We confess our growing national sin of putting the rich over the poor. We reject the immoral logic of cutting services and programs for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich. Budgets are moral documents. We commit ourselves to opposing and reversing those policies and finding solutions that reflect the wisdom of people from different political parties and philosophies to seek the common good. Protecting the poor is a central commitment of Christian discipleship, to which 2,000 verses in the Bible attest.
IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.
V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger that threatens democracy and the common good—and we will resist it. Disrespect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of our three branches of government, and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility toward opponents are of great concern to us. Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority.
VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.
THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.
WE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED for the soul of our nation, but also for our churches and the integrity of our faith. The present crisis calls us to go deeper—deeper into our relationship to God; deeper into our relationships with each other, especially across racial, ethnic, and national lines; deeper into our relationships with the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk.
The church is always subject to temptations to power, to cultural conformity, and to racial, class, and gender divides, as Galatians 3:28 teaches us. But our answer is to be “in Christ,” and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add “no exceptions.”
We commend this letter to pastors, local churches, and young people who are watching and waiting to see what the churches will say and do at such a time as this.
Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
- Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, President and CEO, Global Alliance Interfaith Network
- Rev. Dr. Peter Borgdorff, Executive Director Emeritus, Christian Reformed Church in North America
- Dr. Amos Brown, Chair, Social Justice Commission, National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
- Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary
- Dr. Tony Campolo, Co-Founder, Red Letter Christians
- Dr. Iva Carruthers, General Secretary, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference
- The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
- Rev. Dr. James Forbes, President and Founder, Healing of the Nations Foundation and Preaching Professor at Union Theological Seminary
- Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus, Reformed Church in America
- Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Christian Church, Decatur, GA
- Rev. Dr. Richard Hamm, former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
- Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Faith Community Organizer and Chairman, Community Resource Network
- Rev. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emerita, The Wesleyan Church
- Bishop Vashti McKenzie, 117th Elected and Consecrated Bishop, AME Church
- Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr., Co-Convener National African American Clergy Network
- Dr. John Perkins, Chair Emeritus and Founding Member, Christian Community Development Association and President Emeritus, John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation
- Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
- Fr. Richard Rohr, Founder, Center for Action and Contemplation
- Dr. Ron Sider, President Emeritus, Evangelicals for Social Action
- Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners
- Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, Director, NCC Truth and Racial Justice Initiative
- Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, Co-Convener, National African American Clergy Network; President, Skinner Leadership Institute
- Bishop Will Willimon, Bishop, The United Methodist Church, retired, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School