I watched a Lenten documentary tonight. It wasn’t about Lent, technically, but it was one of the most powerful descriptions of our human condition that I have seen in quite some time. The documentary was called Pray the Devil Back to Hell and tells the story of the courageous and powerful women of Liberia who banded together to bring peace to a country bloodied by war. The film was directed by Abigail Disney (yes, that Disney) who was present at the screening and afterward engaged in a Q&A session with us. To hear her describe how people in Bosnia and Jerusalem and Burundi and Washington D.C. have seen the film and been empowered by it was powerfully hopeful. It felt a little like Easter, actually, partly because I felt I had just experienced the fullness of Lent.
Lent is the forty days we use to get reacquainted with ourselves, and this has both negative and positive connotations. The negative side of Lent’s coin is that we are ugly, that we are broken, and that we have often done terrible things. To hear the stories of women in Liberia tonight who were held at gunpoint and raped is to acknowledge at the very depth of our being that humanity is capable of horrific atrocity (and historically women and children have paid the highest price). We are not allowed to run away from that sobering fact in Lent. We are instead required to publicly acknowledge it. This is why we become, rather intently, people who confess. We confess that we have done things we should not have done, and that we left undone those things we should have done. We confess that we have not faithfully followed the One we so valiantly claim to follow. And in these confessions we get to know ourselves again, behind the veils and the lies and the masks of our own desired sense of holiness. We have to see the ugliness of who we really are, the terrible capacity we have for a world of evil.
The positive side of Lent is that we are also called to confess that we are made in God’s image, and therefore both capable of and responsible for acts of love, peace, forgiveness, and beauty. For my part, I nag about this under-developed side of our story frequently, because without it there is only despair. There is both danger and possibility in what we are, and in what we could be. And I saw what we could be tonight when those Liberian women linked arms and forced an entire compound of power-hungry warlords and government officials and heads of state to find a roadmap to peace or stay locked up in that room, hungry and in need of a bathroom, until they did. Those women used their voices and their passion and their commitment to life and to peace, and against all odds, they won. Humanity is capable of stunning acts of goodness and justice that defy every limitation we considered final.
Abbie Disney said afterward that the biggest gift of this documentary has been the ability to show humanity our true selves. Although this story was extraordinary, it did not require women with superhuman powers, but simply women who were willing to do what they were capable of doing. I know she meant it probably exclusively in this positive sense- that we are capable of changing even dictatorial governments through peaceful means. (And amen to that!) But I also hear the fullness of that Lenten statement resonating in my heart. This is the full picture of humanity, both of which are necessary for us to have a chance at truly knowing ourselves enough to invite transformation. We are capable of dire evil, and we are capable of incredible good (and of course everything in between). Lent affords us the opportunity to look intently at ourselves and ask who we have been, and who we want to be. Our human actions can be used either to destroy this world we have been given or to hold it up as the world Jesus rose to save. I pray the despair of the first always leads us to the transformational hope of the second.