Nobody much today reads Etienne de La Boetie’s work ‘On Voluntary Servitude’. Yet there was a time when this treatise – little more than a student essay dashed off by a sixteen-year-old in the 1550s amidst the French Wars of Religion- was the hottest book in Europe. Even in modern times, its influence has been felt in the twentieth century, while echoes of it can be traced in recent developments in Egypt.
Its central theme is how easy it can be for a tyrant to dominate the people, who can seem to be mesmerised by something which, despite abuses, can be a kind of blind adoration. But it only takes a few people, who have their eyes opened to the reality, to wake up and withdraw their co-operation, for a whole new movement of freedom to begin.
During the Second World War, ‘On Voluntary Servitude’ was used as a call to resistance against dictators. It has also been held up as a model for Gandhi’s campaign of the withdrawal of co-operation against the British in India.
The key element is that people begin to see things differently, to feel and desire and choose differently. Out of that is born a change of consciousness which can literally turn the world upside-down. In that sense it bears a close relationship to the Christian idea of repentance, of entering into a new way of seeing things where we see God, each other, and the world around us with fresh eyes. It picks up on what is, and always has been, the most revolutionary aspect of the Gospel: that there is a power in the Gospel which can change us, and not only us, but that same power can radically change the values by which the world conducts itself. It is the desire, the want, to be changed, which determines whether we are among those who de La Boetie saw as having their eyes opened to a new reality, or whether we continue in thrall to a modern version of slavery, whose values and standards we allow to dominate us.
Lent can be about many things for the Christian: a time to try to give ourselves more space for private prayer, or for discovering more about our faith through study or discussion groups; it can be a time for reflecting on our lifestyle, trying to live a little more simply, or for renewing our understanding of our discipleship through attending to our stewardship of our money, time and abilities. All of these are good and can profit us spiritually.
But at heart Lent is fundamentally about the business of repentance: repentance seen not as a grovelling to a God who makes us fear him, but as a change in our awareness of how things really are in the light of what God has shown us in Jesus Christ. And that change in our awareness is not something which only affects our private, inner life; it affects the way we look at the world and see God’s justice denied, God’s compassion frustrated, in so much that we see around us. Repentance should lead us not simply to a spiritual change within ourselves, but to a questioning of the values by which our society and our world are ordered. It should lead us to a recognition of the moral dimension in every aspect of our common life together. For Christians are called not to look at the world with a despairing shrug of the shoulders, as if to say ‘what can you do?’ Christians are called to have the vision to see with God’s eyes and, having seen, to point to what that requires in our dealings one with another. It is that withdrawing of co-operation from many of the values that surround us that proves the true test of whether we have yet found our own repentance.
Of course, the beginning of the acting out of repentance is picking up a cross and being willing to walk with it. It is carrying the cross into the heart of the public arena which, for some, can mean persecution, derision, imprisonment or worse. And we should remember to pray for those who, in their willingness to carry the cross and face the prospect of being broken, nevertheless continue their journey in faith.
True repentance is what Lent is about. Are we willing to use Lent as a time to challenge our own assumptions, prejudices and fears?