Denying Denial (Week 2 #ReclaimHolyWeek #BlackLivesMatter)

Denial the Polyphemus by John Lister, III
The second week of Lent begins today.1 It is this week that Christians are encouraged to practice some form of self-denial (Lk 9:23). Denying oneself has nothing to do with self-abasement and everything to do with the transformation of our very being (Rom 12:2). Yet this transformation is often stymied by the lies we tell ourselves individually and communally. We engage in this psychological denial because we have difficulty facing the music. We school ourselves in denial so that our remaining aloof from the problem places of society becomes an easy order. I’d like to suggest in this reflection for #ReclaimHolyWeek #BlackLivesMatter that denying denial is the greatest hurdle to overcome in our human lives. If we do not learn how to deny denial, transformation on personal and societal levels will never occur.

Denying Denial

Power brokers and privileged people have a tough time denying their denial. “The idea of white privilege is a joke.” “Law enforcement’s use of force is always justified.” “There’s no such thing as a prison industrial complex.” “ISIS’s perversity is nothing like the perversity of American lynch-mobs.” The people who say this kind of nonsense are not making such assertions in hopes of inviting differing opinions. Nor are these conclusions meant to convince the opposing party to change their perspectives. Often times, individuals who make these statements are simply attempting to create an armor that reinforces their comfortable “reality.”2 This kind of denial, this American Denial, is pervasive and problematic. I imagine that the prophet Jeremiah ran into his fair share of people who had bought into the lie that all was well in Jerusalem. I can imagine Jerusalem’s elite exclaiming, “Even if there is injustice in the land, we deny our involvement!” After giving these folks a good what-for, Jeremiah condemns the popular refrain of the time, “‘Peace, peace,’ there is no peace” (Jer. 6:1-14, 8:4-11)!

I find it fairly easy to criticize the “privileged” and the “power brokers” of our society. In doing this, I successfully deny my own culpability. Maybe you are like me. In my zeal to connect the ethic of Jesus with the public life of the Church I tend to dismiss those who have not yet “arrived” at the place I find myself. I am tempted to believe that because of the neighborhood I live in and the people I interact with I am automatically “down with the struggle.” I have some how concluded that because I don’t sing the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance I now have permission to separate myself from the war machine that is the United States of America. My hunger and thirst to live a righteous life is negated by my self-righteous denial. In Luke’s gospel, we encounter a scribe who knew a thing or two about the Bible–even Jesus commends him on his understanding of scripture! But Jesus’ words weren’t good enough and so the man tries to justify himself (δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν) in an effort to deny his utter failure to embody what he himself knows to be the “right answer” (Lk 10:25-29)! Jesus makes it clear in his response that just because someone knows the right thing to do does not mean that they will automatically do it (Jm 4:17). It is the half-breed-no-good-unrighteous Samaritan who is the paragon of Christ’s parable–not the scribe who knows the law oh so well (Lk 10:29-37)!

Denying denial brings us better clarity as we purify ourselves for this Lenten season. I take personal encouragement from fellow blogger and activist Daniel Ismael Aguilar’s honest account of his coming to terms with his own denial. He serves as an example for the likes of me. Like Daniel, I wish to make it clear that the problem lies not in speaking out against injustice, active resistance or demanding that certain policies be changed/abolished; On the contrary! The problem lies in my thinking that somehow because I write about police brutality, live in an urban neighborhood and have been to a couple protests that I can now place myself outside the circle of culpability. So whether it is the elite-power-brokers of society or self-righteous disciples like myself, the Lenten season invites us to deny denial.

*Prayer for the Week*
Lord, I imagine myself to be highly burdened,
But in fact I am deeply privileged3

*Passages for the Week*
Jeremiah 6:1-14, 8:4-11
Luke 10:25-37

Josiah R. Daniels


[1] It should be noted that I am following Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s outline for observing Lent in which every Wednesday marks the beginning of a new week. See God is on the Cross for more detail.

[2] Paul C. Gorski, Cognitive Dissonance as a Strategy in Social Justice Teaching, 54.

[3] An adapted prayer from Walter Brueggemann’s, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, 20.

Art Denial the Polyphemus by John Lister III.

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