Ash Wednesday is an important day in the Churches calendar, and it has always been the focus of one of the most powerful symbolic acts that Christians partake in. It heralds the beginning of Lent, 46 days of preparation for Easter. The tradition is to use ash from the palm crosses of the previous year and put them on your forehead as a sign of mourning and repentance from sin.
The symbols are powerful - but for me as a liberation theologian, I believe we have to get away from simply individualising sin and repentance. Society and its institutions are equally sinful at times - causing poverty, inequality and violence, and equally in need of 'repentance'.
This is not to ignore ones own responsibility for the problems of this world - we are all connected to the seductions of power, greed, selfishness, which lie at the heart of the perils of our day. It was important to me to 'Ash' myself first before taking part in an act of direct action, recognising my own acceptance and compliance with corporate greed, pollution and institutional violence.
I am part of the problem, and I need to be part of the solution.
However, if the focus is Ash Wednesday is simply on my own individual role, then we miss much of what went on in the biblical story of Jesus in the desert - the 40 days of temptation that the Lenten period is based on. Luke 4:
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Jesus is tempted by the ways and powers of the world - the metaphorical Devil takes him to the roof of St Paul's Cathedral, takes a look at the corporate power around them and says 'one day all this can be yours'. Part of our Lenten journey is to resist the seductions of corporate and capitalist power.
So a few of us, after a simple service in the Minster, went out and put ash on the shop front of the main Starbucks branch in Sunderland. A small act, but a powerful symbol. These corporations need to be resisted, these powerful companies need to repent of their ways. They can make their profit - fine. But they need to contribute to society as well. Those that avoid paying taxes, are effectively avoiding their moral responsibility. Corporate taxes help us pay for our NHS, our schools, our street lights. When those companies making big profits don't make big contributions, it is often the poorest in society who end up facing the consequences. Cuts to services often affect the most vulnerable first.
Starbucks, (and Amazon and Barclays) have come to embody much that is wrong with corporate greed. We need to change how our whole society operates, turning it into a place in which individuals, companies and governments strive to serve the common good. There needs to be a revolution, and that is what repentance really means (literally, to 'turn'.) Society needs to repent, so do many of our corporations, and, for our compliance and silence at the oppressions that these corporations encourage, so do we.
We need repentance, we need a revolution, and we need it now.