Lent: The Chagrin of Lent

Post a Comment » Written on March 25th, 2009     
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CHICAGO, IL (March 25, 2009) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a longtime columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each week during Lent, we are sharing one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine.

By Dr. John Weborg

First an experience. In elementary school – a rural school in Nebraska with one teacher serving eight grades – we had a birthday custom. On the appropriate day, treats were distributed to the school. I had brought a variety of candy bars for my party. As I neared the last classmate, two bars were left—a La Fama, which I did not like, and another, either a Hershey or Baby Ruth.

I reached in to take my preferred bar and left the La Fama. My classmate saw me do this. I ended up with other than a happy birthday since even after I exercised my choice, I knew what I had done. I tried to exchange candy bars, but I was stuck with my candy bar and the shame of what I had done. My classmate was denied choice – he who was the guest at my party!

Later I learned that St. Anselm had argued that when one sinned, two events took place – one took something that was not one’s own, and one held the other person up to contempt. The implication was that the victim of one’s sin was publicly shamed, exposed, humiliated, perhaps left without defense, unless a system was in place to restore what was stolen and to “compensate” for the offense. To a certain extent, the offender, intentionally or not, puts the offended one on notice to do something about it.

I had previously thought of sin as breaking rules and commandments, and in my better moments, relationships. I had not given any reflection on what it means to hold another up to contempt. More often than not, the remaining wound scabs over, but does not heal. In that sense, sin is the ongoing process of victimization, even years after the deed. Children verbally abused by parents know this; those who have suffered from racism know it. Those abused sexually or by the powerful elite know this.

A second theologian came to my assistance. Andrew Park has written extensively about “han,” an Asian concept that may be described as “the suffering of the innocent who are caught in the wicked situation of helplessness” (“The Bible and Han” in The Other Side of Sin, Andrew Sung Park and Susan L. Nelson, editors, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001, p. 47).

I had no idea that sin had “another side.” This put the offended one in the position of seeking justice by vengeance, or justice by confrontation and transformation of the entire relational situation. Sin exacts a price—immediately at the time of offense, and over time as the offense takes its toll of the offended person. Even if reconciliation occurs, the new situation is never a resumption of the relationship as if nothing had taken place. That there is reconciliation is a source of joy but it is a shadowed joy.

So picking the candy bar I wanted (and leaving the La Fama) was my picking of the forbidden fruit. In that act at District 53 in Nebraska, two Scripture texts exposed the extent of my deed: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work” (2 Thessalonians 2:7a), and “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4). Might it not be added that everyone who commits sin commits another to han?

Editor’s note: to read previously published columns as part of this special Lent series, visit the following links:
•    Lent: Standing By Your Word
•    Lent: Tears Can Do Double Duty
•    Lent: Encountering the Divine
•    Lent: No Easy Easter

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