Plastic Jesus

A Lenten meditation on plastic

by Ken Sehested

        My wife’s eyebrows first raised, then furrowed, when I answered her question, “What’s your column focus for this week?

        “Plastic,” I said.

        I knew immediately from her response that I needed to do some explaining as to why, in the middle of Lent, plastic is a relevant topic. [For more on this, see the 1 March 2018 edition of “Signs of the Times.”]

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“I don't care if it / Rains or freezes / As long as I've got my / Plastic Jesus /
Ridin' on the dashboard / Of my car. . . . / When I'm in a traffic jam / He don't
care if I say damn / I can let all my curses roll / 'Cos Jesus' plastic doesn't hear /
'Cos he has a plastic ear / The man who invented plastic / Saved my soul.”
—Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue, “Plastic Jesus"

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        It was a serendipitous decision, one of those streaking-star flashes of inspiration that came after stumbling on several news stories.

        The first reported on Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival celebrations, where glitter-streaked faces are common in street parades. Turns out, glitter is environmentally harmful, made as it is from tiny bits of plastic which, when washed away, travels from sewer and sanitation pipes to the ocean. [See Dom Phillips, “Brazil carnival revelers warned that all that glitters is not good for the planet,” The Guardian]

Right: Carnival reveler Rio de Janeiro Brazil. Photo by Leo Correa/AP.

        Scientists now estimate that every square mile of ocean contains about 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. The deepest parts of the oceans, along with tap water in countries around the world (including at the US Environmental Agency’s headquarters) now contain microplastic particles. [See Damian Carrington, “Plastic fibers found in tap water around the world,” The Guardian.] In 2008, a sperm whale beached on a California shore was found to have 48.5 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

        Eco-friendly glitter is available, but at a cost of hundreds of times more. “It is just one more thing to make the lives of Brazilians more difficult,” complained one party-goer when told of the environmental hazard. “I think they are making it up.” A parallel story, from New Orleans, reports that city workers cleaned 93,000 pounds of plastic beads—the ubiquitous kind thrown from Mardi Gras parade floats—from storm drains. [See “New Orleans Finds 93,000 Pounds Of Mardi Gras Beads In Storm Drains,” NPR.]

        The next article I found reported on Parity, a faith-based LGBTQ-focused network of over 200 churches who offer Ash Wednesday forehead impositions combining traditional palm frond ashes with glitter.

        Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director, said the Glitter Ash Wednesday events were meant to be acts of love and resistance at a time when members of the LGBTQ community feel especially vulnerable to discrimination.

        “Glitter is serious business for queer people,” said Episcopal priest Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman. “Glitter is how we have long made ourselves visible, even though becoming visible puts us at risk.” [See Anya M. Galli Robertson, “Mixing glitter and protest to support LGBTQ rights,” The Conversation,  and Jessica Roiz, “Churches Are Supporting LGBTQ Christians With the ‘Glitter Ash Wednesday’ Movement,” MSN.]

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“There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless.'
There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
—Arundhati Roy

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            I confess to two immediate and opposite reactions to this latter story. Neither had anything to do with whether mixing ashes with glitter on Lent’s inaugural day is sacrilegious. Though highly conversant with, and committed to, tradition, I am not a traditionalist. There’s a big difference.

            One reaction was something like you-go-girl!, of making room for the full participation of, and affirmation for, the queer community in the life of believing communities. And also (this is important) of addressing the profound theological misconception of Ash Wednesday’s ritual as a form of self-abasement and groveling, as if God were a sadist who enjoys our belittling postures. [For more about the recovery of penitential language, see “The Ties That Bind: The Integrity of Penitence, on the 50th Anniversary of the Massacre at My Lai.”]

            If there be no god but such god, count me among the ungodly.

            I believe the promise of sparkle is real—though Lenten ashes acknowledge that Easter’s herald is everywhere contested and opposed. The odds of verifiable evidence are stacked against the prospect of rolled stones on Resurrection morning.

            The objection that simultaneously accompanies an affirmation of glitter ashes is this: Can such a ritual sidestep the glitterization of faith? In a culture committed to comfort, convenience, and security, can sparkly ash speak to the discomfort, inconvenience, and unsecured terms of Nachfolge Christi (“Following Christ,” which was the original title of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship)?

            The entire logic of Lenten observance is not to banish delightful, fruitful life. Mardi Gras’ festivity is incorporated in the first doctrine of Scripture: Genesis’ account of creation’s conclusion is declared delightful. Sabbath is one part fiesta, one part siesta.

            But something went terribly wrong; and a certain kind of purging must occur before we can don our dancing shoes, because we have become so plasticized—so molded and conformed—to the mechanisms of humiliation and degradation which now inflict God’s verdant creation. A certain decolonizing—of both social structures and of the heart—must be pursued in our search for the Beloved Community.

            Or as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it, in words beyond that of traditional faith language, “The mental and moral shift from denial of injustice to consciousness of injustice is often made at very high cost.” To love is to suffer with.

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“When the city bus paused for a few minutes outside the Woolworth store,
I rushed in to get a coca-cola and a few unnecessary plastic objects.”
—Nanci Griffith, in her brief monologue before singing “Love At the Five and Dime

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            As things now stand, it’s hard to imagine life without plastic or the host of other fossil-fuel products. Whether you are the parent of an infant, a medical professional, a backpacking enthusiast, or merely sitting at a computer like I’m doing right now, plastics impinge. Not only the “unnecessary plastic objects”—the doodads for which cultural elites hold in contempt the mobile home crowd—but also things that make life more enjoyable.

            At present I cannot see and articulate a comprehensive plan of action to get from where we are to where we need to be, inexplicably trapped as we are in a system whose excesses threaten the ecosystem itself. And yet, as Edmund Burke said, nobody made a greater mistake than those who did nothing because they could only do a little.

            Thankfully, there are people smarter than me who are leading the way forward. Few of the solutions will be comfortable, convenient, or risk-free. The things needing to be done require attention to way more than one person, one movement, or even one era can accomplish. Most of the initial steps toward lasting change will be incremental: whether it’s a commitment to recycling or to participating in acts of civil disobedience against the plague of fossil fuel industries. The thoughtful, persistent habits of daily divergence from the grip of marketeers is no less heroic than breaching the barricades of unjust legal norms.

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“For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know
we needed and take us to places where we didn’t want to go.”
—Kathleen Norris

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            The way will not open until we begin walking. We more often live our way into new thinking than we think our way into new living.

            Make a commitment that builds on what you are already doing. Mix these concrete actions into a commitment to do fuller analysis of cause-and-effect relations as well as a deeper life of prayer. The capacity for risk is always in proportion to the capacity for reverence.

          Then knead all this into conscious and disciplined collaboration with a larger community of conviction, to further sharpen perception, sustain inspiration, and magnify engagement.

            This learning process—the comprehensive work of spiritual formation, of recognizing to Whom we belong, to what Purpose we are called, and by what Promise we are sustained—is called discipleship.

            Leave aside every plastic, gerrymandered jesus, whose principal function is little more than that of a mascot for the empire. Dare to go for the real thing. Lent’s wilderness showdown with the Confuser is a call to come home, where the prospect of morning’s joy will sustain through every night’s sorrows.

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