Today, millions of Christians around the world will hear a line from the Book of Joel encouraging them to return to God:
“Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
For the editors of this section of Scripture, it was important for their hearers to understand that public acts of penitence, sorrow, and transformation are meaningless if not practiced in tandem with a changed posture of heart.
Looking at biblical texts more broadly, we hear the prophets saying that the rending of the individual human heart is not as desirable as the rending of a nation’s, or community’s, or society’s heart. Time and again, these messengers assert that we are all connected and bound together by virtue of our common humanity.
With this in mind, days like Ash Wednesday must not be treated like just another self-help routine. While individual devotion is praiseworthy, so is social repentance and transformation — especially when the streets of our cities are subject to infrastructural decay and historic negligence, our schools are wounded by slashed budgets and apathetic lawmakers, our black and brown communities are stalked and abused by law enforcement officers bent on our imprisonment and destruction.
To riff off the prophet Joel: the rending we need is not one of clothes, but one of systems.
Note: “Rend” is the first installment of a new theology video series written by the Rev. Greer and produced/directed by Kyle Taubken.