Chocolate, alcohol and Twitter are some of the popular indulgences many Christians give up during the period of Lent leading up to Easter. But this year, some churches are encouraging congregants to give up plastics.

Paper straws and wooden stirrers replaced the plastic implements once used at Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland in 2018. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Dozens of Pennsylvania churches near Pittsburgh that belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are encouraging their churchgoers to forgo commonly discarded single-use plastics. Each week, parishioners will be encouraged to give up a different item: shopping bags, drinking straws, water bottles, Styrofoam and food wrappers.

The Rev. Sarah Rossing, pastor of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, said the idea originally came from a similar challenge that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh issued this year to reduce dependence on single-use plastics such as grocery bags and Styrofoam plates.

“It’s a way to think about it as more than just a personal thing, like chocolate or alcohol that’s enjoyable,” Rossing said. “This is asking people to give up convenience . . . and be more intentional with things and the Earth.”

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and runs during the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, the day Christians celebrate their belief in Jesus’ resurrection, which many churches this year will mark on April 21. Lent marks a period when some Christians reflect on the biblical story of Jesus’ time in the desert, where he fasted and prayed before his eventual death. Many Catholics and some Protestants give up something during Lent.

Last year, the Church of England urged its worshipers to give up single-use plastics, distributing a calendar with environmentally-themed Bible verses and suggestions on how to avoid using plastics. This year, the church is encouraging congregants to go on “litter pilgrimages” where congregants walk together, pray together and collect litter.

The Cathedral in the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado as well as several Protestant churches in Portland adapted the Church of England’s calendar for their own use and are also encouraging parishioners to give up plastic this Lent.

The world produces more than 300 million tons of plastic each year, and scientists estimate that up to 91 percent of plastic is never recycled, threatening the environment and poisoning animals. Plastics don’t biodegrade and can stay in landfills for hundreds of years. Several cities, including Washington, have banned Styrofoam containers and are taking action to limit other single-use plastics such as straws and grocery bags.

On Ash Wednesday, the Episcopal Church will launch a “Creation Care Pledge” inviting members to pledge to environmental activism, such as using a carbon tracker and reducing meat consumption.

Lent can serve as a time for Christians to reflect on how our ordinary way of living has become destructive of God’s creation, says Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary who has written a book on Lent.

“Christians have to resist the dominant world of commoditization in every way that we can think to do,” Brueggemann said. “Fasting is a discipline that gives energy for positive engagement with justice questions. The question is, what does it empower us to do?”

Among Christians in the United States, Catholics (61 percent) are most likely to observe Lent, according to a LifeWay Research survey in 2017. Protestants (20 percent) and Christians with evangelical beliefs (28 percent) are less likely to observe the period.

Stanley Hauerwas, a professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School who has written books on virtue, said that giving up plastic is straying too far from what Lent was meant to be.

“They’re giving up plastic as a way of doing something that seems to make the world a better place. It’s a confusion of categories,” Hauerwas said. “Giving up plastic is aimed at a different set of problems than what Lent is about. Lent is about confession of sin.”

Some churches in the Washington area have caught on to the trend of merging environmental activism and Lent, said Joelle Novey, director of the Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light. She said she didn’t initially think of tying repentance and deprivation to ecological concerns, “but the idea of taking responsibility and ‘fasting’ some aspects of our unsustainable lifestyles seems to resonate deeply in many Christian communities.”

During Lent, St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia will host five workshops covering solar energy, green homes, green community, green world and green yards. And instead of giving something up like chocolate, parishioners have been encouraged to take a leaf from a cardboard cutout of a tree with an environmental change to make. At Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland church leaders are asking congregants to fast from single-use plastics, especially straws. And at St. John Neumann in Reston, the Catholic parish will have meatless soup suppers each Friday during Lent using washable ceramic bowls, spoons and water tumblers instead of single-use disposable plastic and paper items.

For Christians who participate in Lent, fasting from a favorite food or beverage (57 percent) and going to church (57 percent) are the most common ways for them to observe the period, according to LifeWay. Additional prayer (39 percent), giving to others (38 percent) or staying away from a bad habit (35 percent) are also popular.

The idea of giving up food, especially sugar and alcohol, since they were associated with feasts, has its roots in early Christian traditions, according to Aaron Damiani, pastor of Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago, who wrote a book on Lent called “The Good of Giving Up.” By the late second century, Christians fasted for 40 hours, going without food and drink between the afternoon of Good Friday and morning of Easter. Two centuries later, fasting was extended to the whole Lenten season.

“One of the objections to Lent is it’s a trend, that it’s a gimmick, that it’s a flash in the pan that will not have substance to it,” said Damiani, who recommends Christians follow the early Christians in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, or giving money. “This is an ancient practice that the early church found a lot of benefit in. Participating in the life of Christ through training is not a trend.”

The Rev. James Martin, a popular author and priest who is an editor at large for America magazine, said he hasn’t heard of any Catholic parishes encouraging giving up of plastics for Lent but that he thinks it would be in the spirit of Pope Francis’s major document on the environment that came out in 2015.

“Giving up plastic would benefit the common good more than giving up chocolate,” Martin said.

Spiritual preparation for Lent is more than simply giving something up, though, Martin said.

“It’s about your relationship with God. That’s more than simply self-sacrifice,” he said. “If you’re confused about what to do for Lent, just be kind. You can give something up, but doing something positive is just as important.”

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