The Lenten season is rich with memories both ancient and contemporary — and what vivid recollections. So with some apprehension, let me take you on a brief journey.
The Lenten season at its simplest is: “an annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter,” this year on April 1. Christians are encouraged to prayerfully recall the extraordinary events that led to Jesus being crucified and resurrected.
My most vivid recollections retreat to my childhood and two of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Both stories made an enormous impression on me and somewhere in the hierarchy of my brain they will not let go.
Both stories have an overarching theme — concern, care, forgiveness — in what is often an unforgiving world. The Good Samaritan, while walking along a road, was confronted by an injured man who had been pummeled by robbers. Travelers had passed by without offering help, including a priest and a Levite. The Samaritan stopped and helped the injured man.
Regardless of one’s religious background, almost everyone has some familiarity with the story of the prodigal son. The son had abandoned his father, wasted his inheritance and then, only finding degrading work, asked for and received his father’s forgiveness.
I suspect both stories are well known as they are the essence of so many artistic expressions in the visual and performing arts. One of Rembrandt’s most celebrated paintings captures the distraught son being forgiven by his father.
Acts of grace transcend the news; if they were few they would receive a lot of attention. Yet these acts co-exist today with civil estrangement. And this estrangement is exacerbated by political candidates and activists looking for an edge. The “other” forms much of our identity politics and the exploitative game.
America has unique and admirable qualities but continued strength requires more than rhetoric. The eagle on the great seal of the United States holds in its beak a ribbon with the motto, E Pluribus Unum. The motto, which is Latin for “out of many, one,” was adopted by the Founding Fathers in 1782.
It can be argued that the motto is too idealistic. It can also be argued that the Samaritan should not have stopped on the road to Jericho. As the story unfolded the Samaritan bound up the man’s wounds, took him to an Inn and left money for the Innkeeper to care for him — a sacrificial expression of love.
This story does not offer us an easily applied legal template. The parables often tell very personal stories that encourage personal response. Although in this case, Jesus was talking to a lawyer who was asking “who is my neighbor.”
The parables and similar stories from other religious traditions are aspirational or should be. They have, as one writer noted, formed a “thin tissue” of morality — the law above the law.
Civil estrangement in America preceded President Donald Trump — after all, we fought a Civil War. But, as America, informed by both the Bible and the Enlightenment, guaranteed unparalleled freedom for its citizens, its leaders relied on the recognition and influence of a greater good. Certainly Abraham Lincoln did.
In my lifetime there has not been a moment when the greater good narratives have been more at risk. The political edge has become a hard one — unforgiving, intolerant, and often hubristic. The most egregious development has been so-called evangelical leaders who have yielded to today’s Caesar. They, like all of us who struggle with faith’s calling, need to spend the Lenten season striving to understand the Gospel. They also need to understand that a person cannot be both a political and spiritual leader.
America needs spiritual leaders, not politicians wearing vestments.
Al Sikes’ leadership helped shape the arc of 21st century communication technologies from positions as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and then President of Hearst New Media. In 2004, the Manhattan Institute chose Sikes as one of eight winners of the Social Entrepreneurship Award for having founded READ ALLIANCE, which trains teenagers to tutor children with reading deficiencies. Sikes second book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow was recently published by Koehler Books.