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Taking Lent to Repent

02/20/2015 10:25 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015

I spent Wednesday at the World Bank, where President Jim Kim was seeking an alliance with international faith leaders. He told us, "I need your help" to meet the Bank's bold goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. Kim longs to see "the prophetic voice linked to the evidence of what has and hasn't worked to end poverty."

The Bank's strengths are evidence, plans, and evaluation, while the faith communities' strengths are inspiration, hope, and the prophetic voice for justice.

Even though it was an interfaith gathering, the fact that this meeting took place on Ash Wednesday made us even more reflective about ourselves and the need for confession and humility as we approach such an enormous goal -- ending the extreme poverty of those billion people who live on less than $1.25 per day. Let's be honest: If we had been really living by our faith, there would not be as much extreme poverty in the world. Outrage at the scandal of poverty is indeed called for, but along with it must come some humility about our own shortcomings and sins.

Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a 40-day season in the church's life leading up to the death and resurrection of Christ on Easter. It is traditionally meant to be a time of reflection, reevaluation, and renewal in our lives, both for the community of faith and in our relationship to the world. But the "R" word that is most characteristic of Lent is "repentance." And repentance, biblically speaking, is not about the fire and brimstone television preachers but rather about the gospel call to turn around and go in a whole new direction.

Already in these first few days of Lent, I am reminded of how difficult confession, humility, and repentance are in our culture. Humility is something Americans are not particularly good at. Neither are we strong in the areas of self-examination, deep reflection, and repenting for things we have done wrong and then no longer doing them.

We tend to believe if people are poor, there really must be something more wrong with them than with those of us who are not. Many white people suspect that if black young men are having trouble with police, it must be because of the things that they are doing more than any problems with the systems we perpetuate.

Our family was just away for a week in the Dominican Republic on a baseball service and mission trip, where our boys' baseball teams do "spring training" with Dominican players and coaches. Spending a week in Consuelo with the Dominican players and the adults in their lives, and meeting the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who helped host us, provided a glimpse into their lives and a kind of poverty that most American young people have never seen.

We played on their rural "fields of dreams" cut out of sugar cane instead of corn, to wonderfully energetic community stadiums in what is truly a baseball culture. In one game, our high school team got to play the Detroit Tigers Dominican Academy teenage players. It was great baseball -- but also a "life-changing experience," as was told to me by many of our players and their coaches. In addition to the baseball skills, reflection, listening, learning, and asking big questions about how our lives affect others were the lessons of the week.

I came back to an America in fearful reaction to ISIS, with horrific beheadings of Egyptian Christians in Libya, attacks in Europe, a White House Summit seeking the best response to terror, and pundits like Bill O'Reilly saying, "The holy war is here."

Of course, a "holy war" with Americans and the West is exactly what ISIS wants -- it's what will gain them endless recruits. What's increasingly clear is there is no military solution to an ideological threat like ISIS. We can't bomb our way out of this, and just doing what we have done for 14 years is what got us here -- doing more of it will only make things worse.

The answers as to what to do are complicated and not easy to figure out, especially when so much of what America has done, like our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have not only failed but indeed helped to create the current crisis. Especially during this season, Christians are called to begin with humility. The word comes to mind yet again -- repent. Turn around from what you have been doing.

Extremism that uses and perverts Islam will most effectively be defeated from within Islam and not destroyed from without. Ultimately, the conflicts in the region will only be resolved by the countries themselves. But the international faith community has a responsibility to assist our Muslim brothers and sisters in overcoming the extremist fundamentalism that plagues the region and distorts their faith.

The best theological and spiritual guide for what we must learn how to do is expressed by the Apostle Paul: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

That's not just good spiritual advice. It's also what works best.

Even though we were home by Ash Wednesday, my Lenten journey began in the Dominican Republic in the lessons those young men taught me. How do the choices I make affect those around me? How can I, both individually and collectively with those around me, make those effects positive ones? We as Americans and others in the West have long overlooked the ways our actions affect the world around us -- both in positive and negative ways.

Lent must be a time to reflect and repent -- in our own lives, in our churches, and in our nation. It's time to turn around.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.