Although the 40 days of Lent are traditionally associated with solemn reflection and penance, a student-led Ash Wednesday service at the Yale Divinity School that combined prayer with protest has sparked concern among the school’s alumni and some students.
At the Feb. 21 service, a few dozen students, faculty, administrators and members of the New Haven community gathered in the Divinity School Quadrangle to reflect upon the role of Christians in a nation that, student organizers said, is increasingly secular and whose government systematically violates its citizens’ rights. In lieu of the traditional ashes that are prepared by burning palm leaves, the attendees burned copies of the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights and marked each other with the ashes to symbolize the abandonment of the principles set forth by the documents.
Some Divinity School alumni said they were appalled by this version of the Ash Wednesday service, and several students said while they appreciated the symbolism of the act, they thought the aim of the service could have been more clearly conveyed to avoid controversy.
Students who organized the service said in their announcement for the event that they hoped it would serve “as a symbol of our complicity in the ongoing injustice being perpetrated by our nation,” and that they would “lift up the words of the Bill of Rights and the Decalogue as a burnt offering to God.”
Christopher Doucot DIV ’08, who led the student service, said anyone who was appalled by the burning of these documents should focus on the intentions behind the service rather than rather than dwelling on the act itself.
“If they’re upset at the burning of paper, shouldn’t they be more upset about how the government is throwing away the rights that we cherish?” he said. “By burning those pages all we did was make visual what the government has done.”
Doucot, a founding member of the Catholic Worker community in Hartford, pointed to the government’s domestic spying programs and the war in Iraq as evidence that Americans have forfeited their freedom and shirked their responsibilities to the poor.
During the service, students read and briefly discussed how each of the first 10 amendments and Ten Commandments have been violated by the United States, before burning each item.
Divinity School Associate Dean of Students Dale Peterson, who attended the service, said it was completely student-initiated and student-run and was not directly affiliated with the school. The school held its own Ash Wednesday service earlier the same day in the Marquand Chapel. Peterson said he has not heard “negative comments of any kind from anyone” about the student service.
But Rev. Parker Williamson DIV ’66, editor emeritus and senior correspondent to The Presbyterian Layman magazine, said he was displeased to hear that Divinity School students were using the Lenten period as the setting for a fiery demonstration.
“Quite frankly, I think it’s a very immature thing for them to do,” he said. “It sounds to me like a bit beneath the dignity of Yale Divinity School.”
Madonna Adams DIV ’74, a professor of theology at Caldwell College, said she was surprised to see the approach taken by these students, especially in comparison with the first-ever ashes ceremony held at the Divinity School, which she attended in the spring of 1974. Adams said she respected the intention of the service but is confused as to why the students chose to burn the documents they think are being violated.
Tamara Shantz DIV ’07, another student organizer, said she chose to read from and burn a copy of the Seventh Commandment — which stipulates that “Thou shalt not steal” — because she believes the destructive effect that war has on the environment will prevent future generations in Afghanistan and Iraq from living full and happy lives.
Anna Doherty DIV ’08 said while the student response to the service was mostly positive, the presentation did spark some mixed feelings within the community. Doherty said some students thought the mixing of a religious text with a historic government document was not “pastorally sensitive.”
Carmen Germino DIV ’07, who attended the service, said she thought the ashes appropriately represented that society has collectively failed to uphold the principles in the documents and therefore must seek forgiveness.
“I thought it was a powerful reminder that we as American citizens have the ability to reclaim the true spirit of the Bill of Rights and the Ten Commandments,” she said.
But Jonathan Serrato ’09, a member of the St. Thomas More Undergraduate Council, said burning the historical and religious documents is not suitable for Lent, which he said is supposed to be a period of personal cleansing and preparation for the eternal life.
“I don’t feel that this event was appropriate for the time or message that they were trying to convey,” he said. “This event could be considered unintentionally disrespectful.”
Shantz said it is possible that the service will be performed again next year, possibly centered on different issues.