A Very Lutheran Lent

I’’m looking forward to Lent this year. We’re going to have a “very Lutheran Lent” starting in February. If in the past we’ve suggested the Jesuit Examen as a daily prayer and spiritual practice, this year we’re encouraging folks to use Luther’s Small Catechism as their daily prayer and devotional practice. During Lent we will spend time each Wednesday looking at the three chief parts of the small catechism, what Luther says about them and how they might impact our daily life. I’m very much looking forward to the time studying, reading, praying and reflecting.

With this in mind I’ve been pondering one current phrase that has taken hold in our culture: “zero tolerance.” Consider this a rough draft pondering on this “cultural law” that has entered into our public conversation about many issues.

My premise is simple… I don’t believe that a “zero tolerance” policy, is a particularly faithful or Lutheran way of looking at the world and the many injustices that human beings perpetrate on one another. While on the surface the idea seems logical. There are many harmful things that human beings do to one another that should simply stop: sexual harassment, physical violence, racial intolerance, discrimination toward different sexualities and other human inflicted violence, large and small. Of course we do not want to tolerate these types of behaviors. Drawing on Luther’s small catechism we could point to many places in the Ten Commandments that would condemn such behavior. And let me be clear, there should be consequences for this type of behavior, both legal consequences and societal consequences.

However, as faithful people, especially as Lutheran’s, we are encouraged to think of ourselves, and others, as both sinner and saint. In my mind a “zero tolerance” policy would point to the possibility of human perfection, something not possible. In large and small ways, human beings, all human beings, fall short of the ideal of God’s desire. But this is not the final word… in fact, confession, forgiveness and reconciliation is God’s policy, knowing that human beings are flawed, finite, limited, often easily corrupted and sometimes persuaded by darkness. God’s hope is that all people can be forgiven, reconciled to one another and to God’s world. This does not indicate a consequence free ideal, there will be and should be consequences, but God’s hopeful vision is always one of restoration, forgiveness and hope.

In the Lord’s Prayer (one of the three “pillars” or chief parts of the Christian faith according to Luther’s small catechism) Luther offers his confession on the petition, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Luther writes, “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have we earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we sin daily and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us.”

This doesn’t sound like a “zero tolerance” policy to me, but in fact it sounds like an orientation toward forgiveness, reconciliation and hope for all people. Maybe I misunderstand what a “zero tolerance” policy means. Maybe my interpretation that it points toward a human perfection that isn’t possible, isn’t what a “zero tolerance policy means. I’d love to hear your take. What I do believe, and do hope, is that all God hopes for all people confession, forgiveness and reconciliation so that all people can live with integrity, hope and wholeness.

Happy New Year… See you Wednesdays in Lent for more discussion!

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