Cognoscenti Cognoscenti

Support the news

Lent, Voting Rights And Freedoms Born From Sacrifice

This article is more than 7 years old.

Nearly 16 years ago, while honeymooning in Greece, I was charmed by an ancient crucifix that looked a bit like a doll. Imagine the typical slender cross, designed to be worn on a necklace, but with hinged arms on the crossbar and hinged legs dangling from the bottom that give it an almost human form. Early Christians could use this cross to escape persecution. They wore it as a signal to each other of their faith, but they could avoid arrest by claiming it was an idol.

I think about that cross every year during Lent, the Christian season marking the 40 days and nights when Jesus wandered the desert. Catholics observe Lent by making sacrifices, fasting and giving alms. We do this both to honor Jesus’ travails and to humble ourselves in the face of our own human imperfections.

In addition, I teach my children that we observe Lent as an act of solidarity with those who gave up so much in the first few centuries after Christ died — those who had to disguise the symbol of their faith to avoid being interrogated, tortured or even killed. Giving up McDonald’s or sharing a favorite toy doesn’t measure up to going without food and water in the desert, or risking death by proclaiming one’s faith, but it does tie us to that history. It reminds us of how much others sacrificed so that we can take our faith as a given today.

What was once purchased dearly can eventually become ordinary — or even threatened — unless we do something to mark the price once paid.

During Lent this year, I have been struck by a couple of other events that serve as reminders of the heavy sacrifices made in the past to help guarantee our freedoms today: the Supreme Court’s recent hearing of a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and this week’s 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C.

The Voting Rights Act, which Congress upheld in 2006 (the vote now being challenged before the Court), requires states with egregious histories of voter suppression to get federal permission before making changes to their voting laws. And the Women’s Suffrage Parade was an iconic moment in women’s struggle for the right to vote. These are two vivid reminders of the sacrifices that others made so that previously disenfranchised Americans would be able to vote today — and, indeed, to take their vote so much for granted that a distressingly high number do not even go to the polls.

So I think Lent has the right idea. What was once purchased dearly can eventually become ordinary — or even threatened — unless we do something to mark the price once paid.

Yes, women have the vote — but we still do not have full equality. And, yes, we have a black president. But that’s not enough to convince me that we don’t still have work to do, and sacrifices to make, in order to secure the full and equal enfranchisement of black Americans.

The crucifix I admired in Greece was more than 1,000 years old; Lent is even older. Yet both remain meaningful in the modern world. Let’s not be too quick to sweep away the Voting Rights Act — a protection, born of a century’s sacrifices, that is less than 50 years old today.


This program aired on March 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Support the news