As we approach Holy Week (or as some call it, the Easter holidays), I was prompted to remember the principal of my theological college warning us that the greatest prophets of secularism are frequently the clergy. Well, I’m loathe to prove him right, but there are times when the religious and secular realms collide and produce a monster.
I have been intrigued by the emergence of the term ‘virtue signalling’, perhaps first coined by James Bartholomew in The Spectator. In short, it is the habit of letting the whole world know how righteous and in tune with the current cultural and moral preoccupations you are for doing, or not doing, or agreeing, or not agreeing, with some cause or other.
Most virtue signalling proficienados bore me to tears with their predictable hand-wringing, hell in a handcart causes. Usually, I ignore such noise by pouring a large scotch and saying a prayer or two, and I’m probably entering the territory of hypocrisy here, but there are few things more irritating than people boasting about what they are giving up for Lent.
What on earth do people think that Lent is about? What leads them to think that a proud statement of having given up chocolate buttons, or flat whites, or Shiraz, has anything to do with the profound self-sacrificing season of the Church year? The secularised Lent is reductionist and self-centred; it’s an expression of the ego and so, naturally, in order to reach its fruition must be proclaimed far and wide for maximum puffed up effect. Perhaps there are a few souls in the world who truly do have a disordered attachment to Lindt chocolate bunnies, the denial of which would cause some suffering, but most sweet-toothed chocolate abstainers are more often than not trying to shed a few kilos to fit into their gluten-free fair-trade jeans.
As with all Christian practices assimilated by the secular world Lent has become a parody of its intended purpose. True Lent follows the path of Christ entering into the wilderness, led there by the Holy Spirit, to undergo and conquer temptation; to simplify and focus on the spiritual and eternal, elements of life. It is a reminder to us that we are to embrace desert times in our lives and cope with isolation and desolation without the need for the constant chatter of others who we feel the need to impress. Jesus enters into the wilderness alone, and to follow his example we must too.
Jesus warned his followers not to virtue signal, and he attacked the Pharisees for doing just that Christ was irritated by those who ostentatiously prayed in the streets, or showed how miserable they were when they were fasting; for wearing ‘broad phylacteries’ – a symbol of how ‘right-on’ they were at keeping God’s Law. The ‘broad phylacteries’ of the modern world are the social media ‘hashtag heroes’ and ‘meme messiahs’ who are full of sound and fury, but ultimately do nothing to improve anything for anyone whilst feeling entirely self-satisfied.
Instead, followers of Christ are told to be joyful in fasting so that nobody would know; we’re told to give to the poor without fuss or grandstanding or even keeping our own note of what we’ve given. We are to use these opportunities to develop our love of God and neighbour not by becoming self-obsessed and ego driven, but by experiencing kenotic, self-emptying, love.
This Lent – or in what is left of it – might I perhaps encourage you to silently go about trying to make the world a better place not by pointing at others’ failings, but by seeking out opportunities to do something (at your own cost) to help somebody else. And when you’ve done it, for heavens sakes don’t tell me or anyone else about it! This silent revolution has been on the march since around 30AD and on the whole it’s been a pretty effective force for good.
So as fascinated as we might be about the potato chip addiction of British Prime Minister Teresa May, or the numerous vacuous shouts of ‘I’m giving up Trump for Lent’, actually commit to doing something real and tangible. Let’s give up virtue signalling not just for this last Lenten fortnight, but forever!
Fr Chris Yates is the Vicar of St Saviour and St Peter’s, Eastbourne, UK and was formerly Rector of Raymond Terrace, NSW. He was a Police Officer in the UK for 10 years prior to training for the priesthood in Oxford.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.