Finding community on Ash Wednesday
Above the fold on the front page of today’s paper was an image many of you may also have seen. A woman, crumpling in grief, embracing a friend in the wake of yet another tragic school shooting, this one in Broward County, Florida. In our consumer economy based on an individual’s rights, the right to bear arms and to possess one’s own semi-automatic rifle was permitted for a high school student. He flamed out with the rage of consumption, consuming the futures of his peers in a hateful burst of glory. But what jolted me into this story was the unmistakable ashen cross on the woman’s forehead, just like the one that had been daubed on my forehead last evening.
This ashen cross was made from the ashes of last year’s palm branches we had waved to welcome the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We unreservedly proclaimed our hosannas, and then within the week, we betrayed Him and fled in shame. So, on Ash Wednesday, we return in repentance and the grief of our own deception, to seek a new start on our relationship. Thus begins yet another season of Lent, seeking grace anew. Meanwhile, in Nebraska, a young man sells the space on his forehead for $37,000 to a different Lord, renting the space for a month to market an anti-snoring remedy.
It’s complicated, living a countercultural life of Christian service and giving when you’re submerged in the waters of consumeristic culture. For there’s a price on everything, and we are all commodified. William Cavanaugh, in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, throws down the gauntlet, declaring that “Christians … are called to create concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space – the space marked by the body of Christ.” He does this by revealing a new pathway forward by exploring sets of binaries in our culture: “negative and positive freedom, detachment and attachment, the global and the local, scarcity and abundance” saying that this Christian vision of economics may ultimately “be the most practical of all ways to live out the Christian life.”
This is good news, the gospel, for my clients, who are pragmatic capitalists, all followers of Christ, who are inspired by their faith to push against the prevailing culture of consumption as they stop accumulating and begin to give it all away. But as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, here and here, even philanthropy within this all-pervasive culture can so easily transition into a type of accumulating as we rack up grants awarded and compare ourselves to our peers. And philanthropy that remains detached from suffering is missing the mark.
Lake Lambert, in a 2010 review of Cavanaugh’s book, reveals the problem: “Without a shared telos, all that remains is for humans to compete and seek domination over each other. Power becomes the end of human life by default, and so all economic activities are but means for seeking power.”
So, how should we proceed? Cavanaugh points to deep contemplation on the Body of Christ as that which will transform our consumption into self-emptying imitation of our Lord. We eat bread, consuming His body, and thereby becoming His body in the consumption, which we surrender and give away for the world. Read that litany again. It’s an anti-consumption. It sounds like perfect work for Lent.
As we are changed by our repeated encounters with Christ in the eucharistic meal, we move from deep contemplation into action. Cavanaugh provides some practical examples as signposts indicating ways to live out this Christian vision for economics. One is Focolare, the Italian-originated movement that has now spread to 182 countries, seeding small communities of devout believers living a radically different life of authentic, shared community.  He states, “The founder of Focolare, Chiara Lubich, has said: ‘Unlike the consumer economy, based on a culture of having, the economy of communion is the economy of giving.’ However, the Economy of Communion does not see the poor whom they assist as passive recipients of charity, but as active participants in the process…. [R]ecipients become givers, so that the line between recipient and giver is blurred.”
With only a few examples cited – Focolare, Fair Trade, and Church Supported Agriculture – Lambert critiques Cavanaugh for not being specific enough with the examples of this new sort of kingdom economy. He states, “…Being Consumed would have benefited from additional, concrete examples of the practices that model eucharistic economics. … Perhaps there are only a few cases to offer, but finding more existing examples and creating new ones matters a great deal.”
Perhaps I can add to the list from examples I’ve seen, or heard dreamed about:
- Microloans and microinsurance for the working poor
- The 100-mile diet to eat locally
- Community gardens
- Co-working spaces
- Co-housing, particularly in expensive cities like Vancouver
- Debt-free education as a service of a university, which links students to gainful employment and makes their education sustainable
- Millennials refusing to get their drivers’ licences, and walking or taking transit instead
- Bitcoin, if you can wrap your mind around it
- The sharing economy and peer-to-peer markets (eg. Uber, Airbnb, Craigslist)
- The slow creativity of knitting that seems to be overtaking my town (even my wife has taken up her knitting needles again)
All of these examples slow us down, reconnect us to other people, recover our humanity, and root us in a local place. While none of them are perfect models, they are small attempts at opting out of a consumeristic culture that is ultimately an alienating experience and not sustainable. In making these moves, we become reattached, saner, and community can become more robust and alive.
Let’s go back to the woman from Broward County with the ashen cross on her forehead. In her worship earlier that day, she had surrendered to Christ. She ate the bread and then she embraced suffering by coming alongside another who grieved. This sounds like the slow community that is part of this new kingdom economy preached by Cavanaugh. May we keep building it, creatively, in faith.
 Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 33.
 Cavanaugh, viii.
 Cavanaugh, x.
 Cavanaugh, xii.
 Lambert, Lake. “Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh.” Dialog 49, no. 2 (June 1, 2010): 169. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6385.2010.00521.x. Accessed February 15, 2018.
 Focolare website, http://www.focolare.org/en/movimento-dei-focolari/history/, Accessed February 15, 2018.
 Cavanaugh, 99.
 Lambert, 171.
15 responses to “Finding community on Ash Wednesday”
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Mark, I found your post interesting; however was curious regarding what I see as a difference between church thinking and societal thinking. Though I can see benefits to your list, how do you see the spiritual connect between our attitude with Christ within the list? Can a millennial’s willingness to forego a driver’s license manage to draw them closer to Christ?
In creating my feeble list of anti-consumeristic activities, I wasn’t trying to use these activities to bring people to Christ. I see the activities more as an expression of how people who follow Christ can choose to live if they are seeking to exit a consumeristic approach to living.
Hey Mark, You are consistently honest and hopeful in your posts. I am enriched by reading them, this one included. Thank you for connecting the shooting to Cavanaugh’s work. Very well said and poignant. Last May, I took two guys from our church (one is now an elder) on a Men’s Rite of Passage retreat (Richard Rohr is the designer of this) which was very impactful for each of us. The two guys are going to a training weekend to learn some basics in blacksmithing, because they literally want to turn guns into plowshares. He purchased his nephew’s AR-15 which is going to beat and what-not, and get this, he wants to do it on the church patio on Sunday morning! What do you think about this idea? Also, as an aside, I also appreciated what you wrote about the Eucharist and am curious how your experience has changed since joining the RC Church. Also, thanks for all the positive examples of resistance or alternative practices. I’ve been having fun this year making cold-process soap as gifts mainly, and part of it is for this very reason- my need to be more connected with what I use/consume on an everyday basis. Bless you brother!
Chris, thank you… that’s so encouraging.
I was at a Henri Nouwen Society conference two years ago, and they passed around a plough that had been crafted from guns that were melted down and repurposed.
Falling into liturgy by attending daily mass has deepened my appreciation for and love of the Eucharist. It’s hard to do in a post and I’d rather share in person. I used to think that all that ritual and repetitive prayers, etc would be mind-numbing. I’ve instead found it a deep source of unending joy, and my hunger is satisfied.
I went to Israel last year and stayed for a few days at a Kibbutz. Do you know what that is? The one we were at was a sustainable, self-sufficient community, centered around agriculture (as your post recognized was a viable alternative for a potential Christian response to consumerism).
The Kibbutz was impressive to say the least, everyone in the community took pride in their contribution to the good of the people, and none felt like they were a drain on their special society.
Maybe we could try a joint American/Canadian Kibbutz on the Montana/Alberta border? It has great farmland…
Just come to St Stephen NB on the border with Maine. I sometimes feel like I’m in a kibbutz with this community!! 🙂
First let me tell you I am encouraged by our last two texts and the Catholic authors. I also connected this text to my research – in which I learned CRS is doing amazing work with refugees! I have always been fascinated by the Catholic Eucharist and difference in thoughts with other “religions”. I found this statement in an article: “The enacting of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist has a dramatic effect on the communicability of pain from one person to another, for individuals are now united in one body, connected by one nervous system.” Can you imagine if we lived this way? Your thoughts on this?
One more thing – I loved this statement in your blog…
“It’s complicated, living a countercultural life of Christian service and giving when you’re submerged in the waters of consumeristic culture. For there’s a price on everything, and we are all commodified.” YES!
Yes that quote really hit me too. I love the thought of us being one. Frequently, as I line up and proceed forward to receive the eucharist, I see the diversity of those gathered with me, and yet realize the unity as we are one in Christ.
Thanks for the list! It resonated with me. I have been trying to adopt these types of small changes in my consumption habits over the past few years, and your list helped me see how far I have come. I have a driver’s license, but hove not driven a car in Lyon since moving here 2.5 years ago (caveat-when I travel to the States, I do drive there, but this isn’t very often). My son Chandler (age 20) lives in the States but still does not have a driver’s license (he bikes most places). I buy all my produce, cheese, and eggs at a local market–everything grown/raised within 50km of Lyon. I work in a co-working office. And we share our home with a single guy. So we are co-housing as well.
To Shawn’s question, I would say that making many of these changes has drawn me closer to Christ. I find that as I am more mindful of how my choices impact the people and the world around me, I am more likely to “look not only to my own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), which is that same attitude as Christ.
In a way I feel I’m late to the party – just waking up to changing my consumption habits that I’ve often just taken for granted. I agree with you that it is these little, simple actions that habitually repeated, begin to change and shape our attitudes, and I think allow us to become more grateful for the life we have been given.
Thanks for the list you made Mark. Like Jenn, it reminded me of things we try to promote locally just to build relationships.
What powerful imaginary of the lady in the midst of suffering. Sorrow, loss and grief beyond explanation, yet Christ in the middle of all that-comforting, shaping…
Greg – thanks for mentioning the image of the woman grieving yet also a type of Christ. I’m glad you caught the same power of the image that I did.
Your quote “Cavanaugh points to deep contemplation on the Body of Christ as that which will transform our consumption into self-emptying imitation of our Lord.” resonates with the core of this book. As followers of Christ, we are to be in communion with each other ad really with the world. Your posts always make me contemplate just what it is to live a life surrendered.
Very creative and relevant post Mark. This was a classic connection with ash Wednesday and the story in the text: “So, on Ash Wednesday, we return in repentance and the grief of our own deception, to seek a new start on our relationship. Thus begins yet another season of Lent, seeking grace anew. Meanwhile, in Nebraska, a young man sells the space on his forehead for $37,000 to a different Lord, renting the space for a month to market an anti-snoring remedy.” What a classic example of our extreme consumer culture. Also very sad about the tragedy in Florida that unfortunately is another example of what is becoming an epidemic in our country, with hundreds of kids dying by gunshot yearly.
I’ll echo what others have said, that your post was really helpful, especially where you lined out some specific ideas for how to work out this different way of living. The critique that you cited about not enough examples was one I had also read and agreed with. I guess, the book is a jumping off point for imagining and experimenting, and that is what you have started to do with your post. Thanks!