Penance Is Not a Political Stunt — It Unites Us With Christ Crucified

Politicians have turned “sacrifices” into statements about factory farming, animal rights, mental health and the Green New Deal.

Indian activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) dressed in hazmat suits hold placards during a demonstration in Hyderabad on Jan. 5, 2015.
Indian activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) dressed in hazmat suits hold placards during a demonstration in Hyderabad on Jan. 5, 2015. (photo: Noah Seelam / AFP via Getty Images)

We are watching as penitential practices morph into politics. In the past several years, veganism and vegetarianism have become a political religion. God warned Hosea (Hosea 6:6), “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Secularists have taken this and run with it, but God is out and adherence to a progressive agenda is the goal.

In such a confused culture it’s helpful to ask, what is the original purpose of a penitential season like Lent? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 540), “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Christ in the desert.” Forty days of solitude prepared Jesus for his three-year mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and Passion. So, the purpose of Lent is to unite us with Christ, to grow in “steadfast love.” That love of God gives way to knowledge and makes necessary reparation for sin. By knowing God, we can understand the seriousness of sin and the depths of his mercy. Knowledge is a gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to live God’s will in our lives. We join our sacrifices in solidarity with the Lord, who paid the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross.

The secular understanding of “sacrifice” contrasts dramatically with what the Church teaches. At the Last Supper, Our Lord explained the connection between love and sacrifice. He told his Apostles (John 15:12-13), “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Real love is sacrificial self-giving, even to the point of death. It is not about sentiment, but perseverance to do that which will be good for the soul of the other. And this isn’t just one man saying it to another — this is God speaking, so the context and reference is always Jesus.

But secularists have co-opted religious practice. They have turned sacrifice for God into a political position. Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have turned “sacrifices” into statements about factory farming, animal rights, mental health and the Green New Deal.

Gov. Polis declared March 20 “Meat Out Day” as a way of promoting environmentalism. In his Feb. 26 proclamation, he wrote of a “plant-based diet that helps protect the environment by reducing our carbon footprint” and that a “growing number of people are reducing their meat consumption to help prevent animal cruelty.” Eating meat is deemed inherently cruel toward animals and injurious to the Earth. The environment and animals are prioritized over humans. This contrasts with the Scriptural view of stewardship of the Earth.

Last February, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez announced she was going vegetarian in observance of Lent as a tribute to Tommy Raskin, the late son of Democrat Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin. On social media, she wrote, “Does anyone want to join me? Rules are 1) No judgment 2) Make it your own (you can go full 40 days, just veggie Mondays 3) Be inclusive (no need to observe Lent to join).” Going vegetarian for Lent, which has been a standard practice for centuries, has become political.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s “Lent” contrasts dramatically with the Catholic understanding. The “no judgment” is, ironically, a form of judging. Lent reminds us that the Lord is the Just Judge. The “make it your own” subjectivizes spirituality to the point of meaninglessness. The individual is the final authority. The exhortation to “be inclusive” of course excludes more traditional understandings. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made Lent about the late Tommy Raskin, rather than Jesus Christ.

The politicization of penances turns them into matters of policy and power. Government policy supplants personal sacrifice. It calls to mind the Passion, in which the chief priests tell Pontius Pilate (John 19:15), “We have no king but Caesar.” They prefer human government to God’s sovereignty. They prefer the Roman Empire to the Kingdom of God. In doing so, the chief priests thought they were doing the practical thing, staying out of trouble. But it was a secular way of thinking, showing that the cult of politics has consequences.

We see this idolatry of the State in the championing of “Meatless Mondays,” originally connected with meat rationing during the First World War. The sacrifice was for the government’s sake. At the time, people were even encouraged to make weekly oaths akin to the Creed. In the oaths, people pledged to abstain from certain foods on fixed days of the week.

Progressives are attempting to take over religion for their own purposes. Lent is no longer religious, but secular, tied to current political trends. Just as the movements of Occupy Wall Street and for same-sex marriage had their moment, this politicized Lent lacks the permanence of the changeless God. But it does show the urge to idolize government is a consistent aspect of human character.

Moreover, politicized penance distorts the sense of sacrifice. Political “sacrifice” means the imposition of suffering on others. David Ismay, the former undersecretary of climate change for the Massachusetts Commonwealth, told the Vermont Climate Council in January that 60% of emissions came from “you, the person on the street, the senior on fixed income. There is no bad guy left, at least in Massachusetts, to point the finger at, turn the screws on, and break their will so they stop emitting. That’s you, we have to break your will, right. I can’t even say that publicly.”

Sacrifice now means afflicting the afflicted. It is about a show of power over the suffering. Ismay spoke of “turning the screws,” a contrast with the poor widow’s free act of generosity (Luke 21:1-4). The widow actually sacrificed, freely.

We see the cynical, political use of religious practices in the Good Friday narrative. When Our Lord is handed over to Pontius Pilate, Pilate scornfully asks (John 18:35), “Am I a Jew?” Later, Pilate says (John 18:39), “You have a custom that I should release one man for you at Passover.” The thief Barabbas is released to please the crowd and prevent a riot. Pilate does not believe in Passover, or that the release of a prisoner echoes the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. He isn’t Jewish, but cynically uses Jewish customs for his own political ends.

The use of “Lent” is also for political purposes. Lent is no longer about Jesus’ sacrifice, but a patronizing use of Catholic theology and customs. It maintains the appearance of “tradition” without its substance. Secularized, one can identify as a “traditional” Catholic, free of the obligations and beliefs.

The Catechism notes (CCC 1435), “Conversion is accomplished in daily life by gestures of reconciliation, concern for the poor, the exercise and defense of just and right.” The politicization of penance has narrowed this “defense of just and right” into government programs. Fashionable causes supplant God’s timeless justice. Caesar — that is, government — replaces Christ the King.

Religion is fragile and can be used by the State. Will Catholics let this happen? Will the Church, like the ancient chief priests, allow it to happen? The purpose of penitential practices is to unite us with Christ crucified. In his seeming powerlessness on the Cross, he defeated death and sin. By his Cross and Resurrection, he redeemed the world.