taking the words of Jesus seriously

EDITORIAL NOTE: Thousands of people from all walks of life joined the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina this past Saturday to stand together for love and justice in the public square. Red Letter Christians came together to both support the march on Saturday and “preach-in” in local churches on Sunday. Below is a meditation from Rev. Dr. Peter Heltzel, who participated in the weekend’s activities, preaching at St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.


Here at the beginning of Lent, as we begin our forty-day journey toward Easter, I’ve been thinking about what kind of fast the good Lord calls us to. What are we supposed to do during the next six weeks as we wait for Easter?


Isaiah 58 says:


Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
 and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, 
a day acceptable to the Lord?


Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40-day period that precedes Easter in the Christian calendar. It is a time for prayerful reflection, which historically has included fasting as an act of contrition, opening our bodies and souls to the fragility of the human experience, especially of the hungry and the hurting, the sick and the suffering.


This Ash Wednesday, I returned to my alma mater Wheaton College to join students who launched a Fast of Embodied Solidarity. I’m heart-broke and mad as hornets that Wheaton College has lost Prof. Larycia Hawkins, the first tenured African American woman in 156 years. What was Prof. Hawkins’ crime? In mid-December she put on a hijab, showing solidarity with Muslim brothers and sisters, as they’ve been experiencing discrimination in our country, quoting Pope Francis on her Facebook page, saying “Muslims and Christians worship the same God.” This statement enraged Franklin Graham, who publically called for her dismissal.


President Philip Graham Ryken had a decision to make: would he follow Franklin’s theology of fear or the loving vision of Rev. Billy Graham (Wheaton Class of 1943), 97 years old and still standing? President Ryken choose to follow Franklin and forced out Prof. Hawkins, igniting the fires of student protest on campus.


Wheaton College students are leading a nationwide, 40-day fast to call on the Wheaton community and all of the nation’s evangelical Christian institutions to confess and repent of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, recognizing that all humans have dignity and are created equal in the eyes of God.


This past Ash Wednesday, I joined Wheaton students in an act of public lament. We put on sackcloth and received ashes on our forehead in front of Edman Chapel at Wheaton College. Wheaton students say their Lenten fast is inspired by the moral courage of departing Prof. Larycia Hawkins, whose call for embodied solidarity as an expression of Christ’s command to love our neighbors during Advent late last year cost her tenured teaching position and livelihood. Inspired by Prof. Hawkins’ heroic love, students in the HNGR (Human Needs and Global Resources) program began fasting on February 4th, soon joined by other Wheaton students, alumni, and allies—a fast that is now spreading to other colleges, seminaries and churches.


The Fast of Embodied Solidarity entails praying, fasting and serving alongside the poor to build a better world together. It is a response to Isaiah’s question: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, 
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”


We are called to break the chains of injustice. Our ritual fasting and prayer has to be connected to the work of justice. Isaiah teaches us that embodying our moral values is more important than empty rhetoric or ritual. Today’s Wheaton College student activists stand on the shoulders of a long line of student leaders, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized by Ella Baker at Shaw University in April 1960. These young college students went to states throughout the South to educate, inspire and register voters, igniting the fires of the Southern Freedom movement.


SNCC leader Julian Bond said:
A final SNCC legacy is the destruction of the psychological shackles which had kept black southerners in physical and mental peonage; SNCC helped break those chains forever. It demonstrated that ordinary women and men, young and old, could perform extraordinary tasks.
As we seek to break the chains of oppression, we must remember that they are structural and psychological. This past Saturday, I joined Brother Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Rev. Dr. William Barber II for the 10th anniversary of the Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina. The fusion politics of North Carolina’s Moral Movement helps me to see how the fast of Wheaton students, the marches of Black Lives Matter activists, the protests of the Fight for 15 and other public efforts to loose the chains of injustice can come together to fulfill Isaiah’s vision by the power of the Spirit in America today. In his speech at the Moral March Rev. Barber quoted the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 10:1-3
Woe to those legislators who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?


We let the powers in Raleigh know that we the people want change. We want a Living Wage. We want an affordable house. We want health care. We want a good education. We want to be free to return home to a warm hearth where we can love and be loved.


In Isaiah 58:12 it says:


Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of the Breach, 
 Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.


Although some exiles returned to Zion after the Persians defeated the Babylonians, the land remained in ruins. Isaiah said it was time for reconstruction. And the same is true today. We need a Third Reconstruction in America. It’s now time to rebuild the cities destroyed by racism and fear. Our police system is broken—that’s a breach in the wall. Our education system is broken—that’s a breach in the wall. Gentrification is pushing folks out of their homes—that’s a breach in the wall.


We need to be repairers of the breach, filling in potholes in the streets, moving into the abandoned places of empire and building friendships with Muslims, while working for peace. The prophet tells us that this is not only our duty to others. It’s also our only hope for ourselves.


Is this not the fast I have chosen… to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer shelter—when you see the naked to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?


Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will be complete.


I’m a broken hearted man who wants to be healed this Lent. I struggle with racism, sexism, and Islamophobia myself, and I know the wounds it has inflicted on me. But Isaiah’s message is good news to a man like myself. When we take up the work of justice—when we meet Jesus in the sick, the hungry, the naked and the imprisoned—we live into the resurrection that our Lenten fast points toward. I pray you will join us in this fast of embodied solidarity, putting love into action in hope of resurrection life.

About The Author


Rev. Peter Heltzel, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is the Director of the Micah Institute and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at New York Theological Seminary. He also serves as Assistant Pastor of Evangelism at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. Rev. Heltzel holds a B.A. from Wheaton College, a M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. He also completed course work at the University of Mississippi in Southern fiction and creative writing. These courses, combined with his childhood years in Mississippi, inform his work with a deep commitment to the power of words and music, to social justice and to a global movement of radical change and collective activism. A gifted writer, Rev. Heltzel has contributed to seven books as author or editor. He has published numerous articles in journals, such as Books & Culture, Science & Theology News, Sojourners, Political Theology, Princeton Theological Review and the Scottish Journal of Theology. An Auburn Senior Fellow, Heltzel is a founding member of the Red Letter Christian movement.

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