Ashes, Sacrifice, and Abundance by Melissa Browning

Melissa BrowningLast year I got my ashes at the airport. As I sat in that airport chapel, I halfheartedly listened to a (mostly terrible) litany that was proclaimed in between announcements for gate changes. I was leaving for another campus interview after having been home for only 24 hours since the previous one. The Christian season of Lent came during a time of stress and chaos in my life. That year, when I contemplated what I might give up for Lent, I could think of nothing. So much had been taken away that I had nothing left to give.

The season of Lent is often linked with the idea of sacrifice. Some people fast, others give up a favorite vice or a favorite food. As a feminist theologian, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the idea of sacrifice. I wonder how women who consider themselves part of Christian churches can be asked to sacrifice when we have already given away too much. Too often, our labor is welcomed but our voices are silenced. As a Baptist theologian and ordained minister who has sojourned in Catholic universities, I’ve felt this in my own tradition and in traditions that are not my own.

The stress and chaos of last year’s Lenten season came at least partially as a result of the friction between feminist theologians and the church. I lost my tenure-track position after being told to tone down the feminist theology in the classroom. I found out that I had been banned by the archdiocese from teaching archdiocese-funded students. I was never told why I was banned – I only learned this from students who were no longer allowed to take my classes. I was caught in the midst of an institutional shift that was bigger than even this friction. I joined a pastoral studies faculty of 13 people that was reduced to 3 only two years later. Tenured male faculty who protested these changes were offered early retirement packages, but the women, who had neither tenure nor security, left with nothing.

This year, as I received my ashes, I remembered last year’s ashes. Airport ashes. Ashes given to someone stuck in between places, someone who had nothing left to give. This year, I find myself in a better place. While I did not find a new institutional home (that felt secure enough to merit moving my family across the country), I am grateful for teaching and research that is meaningful and important and for a local church where I have a voice. I am grateful to have enough abundance to consider again what it means to sacrifice, rather than to lament being sacrificed for the sake of someone else’s ideology.

Feminist theology was born out of a discussion on the meaning of sacrifice. As Valerie Saiving Goldstein responded to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Anders Nygren in the 1960’s, she argued that the sin of women was not the sin of pride, but of self-abnegation. Women gave up too much, she argued, and Christian theology was being irresponsible in giving them a model of agape love that asked them to sacrifice even more of themselves. In my own writing and research I have joined the many feminist voices that have been critical of the ways in which religion asks women to sacrifice themselves. Yet at the same time, I have also wondered if there is a time and a place where sacrifice is appropriate.

What I have come to is this: It is only out of our abundance and toward God’s abundance that we can sacrifice ourselves. While sacrifice can rightly be called a Christian discipline, so is the call to live abundant lives that honor the human flourishing of all creation. Sacrifice – for religious or personal reasons – can be an act of agency, but only when it does not profoundly disrupt the care we are called to give to ourselves.

Sacrifice, like any other action can be moral or immoral – just or unjust. Sacrifice can only be considered a just and moral option for those on the margins when it opens space for mutuality in our relationships with ourselves and with others. In my fieldwork in Tanzania with women living with HIV and AIDS, I learned that we must make a clear distinction between a sacrifice that promotes agency (such as caring for one’s children) and women being sacrificed for the sake of something or someone else. This means that in a church that sacrifices and silences women, sacrifice is likely not a moral option. In the same way, in a society that devalues women’s work, sacrifice is unjust if it stems from expectations surrounding gender.

With this said, when we find ourselves in spaces of abundance, where our gifts are valued and our voices are welcomed; when we live and breath in places where our sacrifice will be received with mutuality, then we can take this abundance and consider what sacrifice we might make to create a more just world. Or at least those were my thoughts this year when I got my ashes.


Melissa Browning is a community-based researcher who works at the intersection of public theology and public health. Her recent book, Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania, focuses on the ways in which marriage is an HIV and AIDS risk factor for women in East Africa. Melissa holds a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Loyola University Chicago and she teaches at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. For more about Melissa’s work, please visit her website at

Categories: Christianity, Feminist Theology, General, Lent, Women's Spirituality, Women's Voices

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10 replies

  1. Melissa you raise two very important themes here.

    I imagine you could expand further on how the theme of self-sacrifice confuses women who are expected to stay with and sleep with men who because of their other sexual relationships may be bringing HIV into the marital bed. This topic has not been discussed as it should be in specific and in general, so thanks for bringing it up.

    I also think someone — all of us — should be documenting the times and places women theologians have lost jobs because of teaching feminist theology in too radical a way or at all. Too often the women in question move out of the academy and their stories are forgotten. Yet, this process is silencing or censoring many of the women and many of the feminists who teach theology. And in addition it stops dialogue between Christian and post-Christian feminists.

    Just this morning I was reading again about the ways in which firings incited by the conservative response to the Re-imagining Conference in 1993 virtually put a halt to the exploration of female images for God in mainline Protestant denominations.


    • Carol – I agree. And its not just people being fired, but bullied and pressured as well. I think we all know women who are women in the academy who are experiencing extreme pressure in this regard. We need to be gathering these stories as well.


  2. Thank you for this post. You make important distinctions. Who is making the sacrifice for what and for whom. Who is benefited? Who is harmed? I am remembering alternate definition of sacrifice that has nothing to do with self-abnegation. To make sacred.


  3. Christianity was built on the early nature religions. In my understanding, Lent is the preparation for the rebirth of Easter. Easter images spring. In the ground there are seeds and the casing of the seeds have to split open so the new sprigs can come to life above ground. The splitting open and the rigorous pushing up through the soil is Lent, sometimes an arduous process, but which leads to a rebirth or re-awakening of great joy.


  4. Thank you for sharing your story Melissa. Referring to Carol’s comment, it would be a good thing to tell the stories so they are remembered and people honoured. There is a website doing that for LGBT people who have been abused by institutions because of who they are. Did you know that Thomas Aquinas was once “silenced” by the Vatican?

    I’ve had an increasing level of trouble with images we use. The ashes of Lent can symbolize repentance (which is very different than sacrifice), or the ashes can remind us that we are one with earth, with all of creation. “Sacrifice” seems to come from ways of thinking that imagine that god wants hardship and death in worship. It is totally different than “repentance”, which is a turning about and changing direction. And why do we (Christians? Society?) focus so much “sacrifice” as a virtue.

    What if the ashes at the beginning of Lent reminded us that we are, really, of earth. One with the mountains and rivers and oceans we abuse. One with each other, just a part of things instead of thinking we are above every thing. Why is there so much focus on “sacrifice”, the negative side of “choice”? What if, instead of “sacrifice”, we honoured our choice to love and act for it. The practice of sacrificing some pleasure during Lent is useful sometimes, but the preaching of John the Baptizer and of Jesus calls for repentance, not sacrifice. It calls us to follow a way that is in direct opposition to our consumer capitalist, self-centred, “power over” society – the mentality that people in power use to maintain that power. Isn’t it interesting how Catholics are taught about the “holy sacrifice of the Mass” and have largely forgotten that when Jesus said: “Do this in memory of me” he was at a community meal.

    Well obviously, you have pushed one of my “buttons” and been “rewarded” with a rant! Off I go – getting my “dust” massaged and healed this morning!


    • Barbara – I love these ideas – especially the idea of connecting with the earth – That’s what I think of when I hear “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”


  5. You said, “but only when it does not profoundly disrupt the care we are called to give ourselves.” This hit me hard. I have a 40+ year marriage to an unloving, difficult man; and a recently fractured relationship with an ungrateful, selfish 40 year old daughter. I know all about sacrifice. But, strangely enough, no one ever told me I should have stopped when it began to harm me. I have never valued myself or my own happiness as much as I have those I love. Why is that? What are we taught that makes use give until we have nothing to people who will take until we are a husk? I would so like to unlearn whatever lesson it was so that I can live my last remaining years for myself.


    • Anina – Its interesting to me that the Christian tradition is so infatuated with the idea of self-sacrifice. This seems to violate what Jesus named as the most important commandment, the central piece of the gospel – ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). We tend to lift up loving God and loving neighbor (and we name these as agape love, as acts of sacrifice) but forget that you can only love your neighbor as you love yourself. So self-love and self-care is the foundation of neighbor love – it is as central to the Christian message as loving God, but is too often overlooked.

      In my book on women w/ HIV and AIDS I met many women who described their marriages in similar ways to what you have described. In responding to this, I used Karen Lebacqz’ article (and SCE address) “Love Your Enemy: Sex, power and Christian ethics” to articulate what I called a transitional ethics of marriage as “loving the enemy” where women understood the risks of marriage (particularly related to contracting HIV within marriage) and worked to change Christian marriage to an institution that more closely reflects the goals of mutuality. (link to Karen’s article is below)

      These are lessons we have to unlearn! It comes to us via our faith traditions and via our cultures (how many of us read the Giving Tree until we memorized it! Its not a coincidence that the tree is a woman!) There’s much work to be done.


      • In the 1990s, I recorded a song that speaks directly to this topic. The first verse is by Ntozake Shange (from “For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enough”) and the second by Ruth Gibson:

        I found god in myself, I found god in myself,
        And I loved Her fiercely, I loved Her fiercely.
        I found god in myself.

        Look for god in each other, Look for god in each other,
        And love your sister, and love your brother.
        Look for god in each other.


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