Karl Marx famously wrote that religion is "the opiate of the people." As a pastor, I would have to say that I often agree with that assessment. Today, I had a conversation that confirmed that reality once again.
A new friend told me her story, full of painful experiences and full of people slapping cliches onto her pain: Don't worry...they're in a better place. God must have needed them more than you do. God is in control. This is what people told her in her conservative Christian church growing up.
Decades later, friends in the New Age movement are telling her something that sounds vaguely familiar: Don't worry...evil is just an illusion. Suffering isn't real. People are basically good, even if what they do is misguided sometimes.
It's amazing how this opiate, this desire to find ways to avoid our suffering by using religion, is able to mutate into whatever spiritual strain it needs to help us cope, escape, or gloss glibly over our pain and the pain in the world.
But true Christian spirituality is focused on Christ. And let's just think about the kind of life he lived. Born under an oppressive regime, from a despised town, "illegitimate" son to an unwed mother, Jesus lived his life as a refugee in his early years, homeless in his later years, and died in the most shameful way for someone to die...unjustly executed by the state, hanging naked on a cross, cursed by his countrymen.
Lent, the Christian season just before Easter, provides an opportunity for us to dwell on the suffering of Jesus. And when we do that, the bread and wine of communion become less like opium and more like smelling salts that arouse our consciousness to the pain, suffering, and yes evil in the world. We need to be fully awake to the reality that God, the only one who could choose to fully avoid discomfort, fully entered the agony of our experience in order to eventually free us from it.
May this Lent, whether through Sunday gatherings, Ceasefire Night Walks, or personal prayer through Lenten Lamentations, wake us up rather than lull us to sleep. Because God didn't sleep when he saw us in our suffering and evil. He went to the cross.