Wilderness, in the Bible, is a vast, empty space where life is harsh if not impossible. We may think of wilderness where Lewis and Clark trekked, across forest, river and mountains of space with little human contact. But the Sinai is more empty, bleak, with almost no visual changes to draw the eye. Merrilyn Holcomb described how truly vast it is to me, and it was her eyes looking to the horizon and panning across her visual reach with nothing to see that brought this emptiness home to me. In this environment, with no other people, or faces, social contacts, law, or status, you have nothing but your “self” (whatever that is) and soon your demons come forth in this solitary place. This is why spiritual seekers go out to empty wilderness. It is to find out what is within. What temptations lurk in the shadows. The quiet voices in the daily background, unconscious yet powerful, become conscious and exposed. Wilderness brings us to a choice. Deal with the voice, or find a better way to lie to yourself.
This is what Jesus was doing. He was following the ancient spiritual practice of facing down his demons in the wilderness. He was carrying very real world challenges about power and powerlessness, shame and success, ego and expectations, to see what he was really made of, with all this messiah talk. Lent is the time where we all take step into the metaphorical wilderness, a time where we choose to look at ourselves honestly. I think there is great value in having this liturgical season, because the practices of the church give some shape and guidance on how to do this safely. Lent is not to be persued as a rugged individualist, even if you have to face yourself. We have a structure, Ash Wednesday, Sunday Services, this year we have house church reading groups where you can explore faith with others. Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and it leads up to Easter, which is a celebration not only of Christ’s resurrection, but of our own restoration after this season of self-examination. Lent gives us the structure to take moral inventory, we face ourselves, with the support of both our tradition and our community.
So the first week always starts with this talk of temptation. Temptation isn’t just about right and wrong, breaking or following rules, don’t eat the fruit of that tree, or do anything fun, and you will be fine! Temptation is ultimately about relationships, how we love our neighbor (or not), and will we let God into our lives and guide our relationships.
Here’s a story about what I mean from the NY Times Magazine last Sunday (How One Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life):
As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel. There was one about a fellow passenger on the flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport:
‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
And then: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
No one replied, which didn’t surprise her. She had only 170 Twitter followers. She turned off her phone for her London to Johannesburg flight. Here’s what happened when she turned her phone back and a text popped up on her phone:
“You need to call me immediately.” It was from her best friend, Hannah. Then her phone exploded with more texts and alerts. And then it rang. It was Hannah. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” she said.
Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”
Clearly this is a dumb thing to put out on your Twitter or Facebook feed. Sacco didn’t mean it literally, it was insensitive and a failed attempt at ironic humor. Was it right to fire her? Maybe. She was in Public Relations. But the swift outrage of over 10,000 people and firing her on Twitter is pretty harsh. This was all stoked by a blogger, who got his followers to go after her, and they “flamed” her. The article interviewed 5 people who experienced similar online treatment, and how their lives are ruined, how difficult it is to recover. In Sacco’s case, she can’t get a job in the PR world, and she laments that she can’t even date, because these days everyone Google’s their date to see if they are who they say they are. Her careless tweet has turned her into a moral leper. Rudy Guiliani says worse things regularly, and he actually means them, yet he will probably still get interviews and attention.
This is not a new phenomenon created by social media, but it is a new spin on an old temptation. It’s the story of Jesus confronting a crowd who is about to stone a woman caught in adultery. “Let the one who is without sin caste the first stone.” In the Gospel story, the crowd melts away. Why? Because Jesus put their own conduct, their own moral demons in front of their faces. As they confront their own shortcomings, they can’t look at this woman in the same way. They could be her, they could be shamed and stoned. She is humanized and they walk away.
The challenge of the cyber world is the facelessness of these encounters. People can send their stones into the virtual air before they think. And just because the stones are data bytes, doesn’t mean the blow won’t hurt. The internet can exacerbate all our normal petty stuff- gossip, negativity, outrage, moral superiority and self-righteous-and find people who will join us. This can create wilderness, a moral wilderness, not a wilderness that lacks vegetation, but one that lacks faces.
Faces matter. You know the phrase, “Say it to my face.” Don’t say anything about someone you wouldn’t say to their face. Why? Because then you see the person and the emotion. You can see if they are nodding their head, listening to you. Or if they are tearful, remorseful, hurt, afraid. Or if they are clenched, angry, defiant. And you can moderate your own message with concern in your voice, an openness that even the best of written words can’t share. Faces make us human beings, not just words and opinions with which to argue.
Some people have gotten creative and used social media to put faces on people. When it was reported that a Florida police department was using mug shots of black faces for target practice at the shooting range, a group of activists sent pictures of their white faces with the message, “If you need a face to shoot at, use mine.” Or think of Trayvon Martin, needlessly shot and killed, and demonized for wearing a “hoodie” jacket, like this made him a gangster. Thousands of people put on hoodies and posted pictures of themselves saying, “I am Trayvon Martin.”
We don’t have to let new technology dehumanize us, nor can we use it as an excuse for bad behavior. The nature of temptation has always been the same, whether in a remote village in Galilee or tweeting from your smartphone. Temptation is this. I’m not related to you. I don’t need you. Therefore, my actions have no consequences.
The purpose of Lent is the opposite. We are all inter-related. We are in this together and we need each other. Everything we do towards each other matters. The cross reminds us of how bad things get when we fail to love, and the resurrection gives up hope that we can be reconciled when we do fail.