The ashes of Ash Wednesday mark our bodies with a deeply existential crisis: our death is unavoidable, even as we live.
The ashes are dead matter smeared on our living bodies. They stir our imaginations of grieving prophets dressed in sackcloth, heads covered in ashes. They remind us of our loved ones who have passed, some of whom chose to become ashes through cremation.
Ashes on our foreheads loudly proclaim our personal vulnerability to death in the ultimate sense and to death’s shadows while we still live on earth. Most of us don’t have any trouble naming the shadows of death that chase us from room to room, leaving us little space to breathe. We know the edges of our finitude, in which our intentions for good and righteous things far exceed our abilities. We’ve seen our maligned intentions cause harm to others.
We know these realities personally, and we bear the ashes as an act of personal repentance. But what of the corporate and collective realities of Ash Wednesday? Why do we leave those shadows unexplored?
I don’t mean collectively repenting, together, of our personal fallibilities but repenting of our corporate misdeeds. Of course, I have heard and seen numerous churches name systemic sins in their corporate confession and address them in their congregational activities and worship services.
But I’ve never heard a church, a whole community of believers, get down into the ashes and say, “This is how our body has specifically and corporately wronged each other, the community and the world.”
I’ve never heard a church repent of its overly ambitious building plan that robbed the congregation of its joy and wrongly directed funds.
I’ve never heard a church confess that its plans for missional life in the neighborhood were thinly veiled gentrification.
I’ve never heard a Christian institution confess that its programs were poorly executed and managed.
I’ve never heard congregational leadership apologize for overemphasizing nuclear families and maligning nontraditional families.
I’ve never heard a volunteer team repent of its failure to show up.
I’ve not seen a statement from a college leadership board confessing its failure to support its faculty and students.
When the leadership of Exodus International apologized for promoting harmful reparative therapy techniques in the LGBTQ community and closed its doors -- the one example of this kind of corporate repentance that does come to mind -- it rattled American Christianity for being radical, shocking and rare.
Of course, institutions can’t sin in the sense of personal, individual transgression. The individuals who constitute an institution bear its moral and ethical burdens. Nevertheless, we don’t often grapple with the corporate grievances committed under our guidance. We spin our congregational and institutional errors as “growing edges” and places for improvement before reckoning with our missteps.
Over time, our institutional amnesia wipes the slate clean, and we are free to muck it up all over again -- or at least tell the story so that it looks like someone else did the first mucking.
But institutional sin is real, and it isn’t just the systemic disease of racism, sexism or ableism. When we turn a blind eye to the corporate misdeeds of our institutions, we deny our corporate fallibility and miss opportunities to practice institutionally the confession and reconciliation that frame our personal experiences with God.
We carry on in our institutional lives as if death were only for flesh and not also for churches, organizations and institutions. We know that doors get shuttered, operations cease and bankruptcies get filed. But we don’t plan well for institutional death; we don’t name it as a reality, so we miss opportunities to share our legacy with new iterations of the church and her mission.
I’ve never seen ashes smeared on the church steeple or altar, or on the front door of a Christian organization. But Ash Wednesday and the repentance it bids us to practice can be a call not only for each person as an individual but for our institutional leadership as a body to come clean of its missteps and limitations and set forth a vision for resurrection, healing and hope.