Michael Brown was shot by Darren Wilson while unarmed. No indictment. Eric Garner was choked to death by another white police officer while unarmed. No indictment. John Crawford was shot and killed in a Wal-Mart while shopping for a pellet gun. No indictment. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy, was shot by Cleveland rookie cop Tim Loehmann. Will there be charges? The odds are not good.
We enter the season of Advent in this context. It is impossible to ignore. We enter Advent, a season I have been told repeatedly is about waiting. Waiting. Advent is supposedly about waiting for Christ to come back. But in Advents like this one, that’s just not good enough. It’s like every box in the Advent calendar has a worse story inside. Waiting. That’s just not good enough.
Waiting is probably the worst message Advent could bring right now. Waiting is the worst message we could preach from our pulpits and spread around social media. Waiting is not good enough.
In 1963, Martin Luther King sat in a jail cell during Holy Week and he thought a lot about waiting. It is all that white people were willing to say. I cannot help but hear echoes of the white clergy in the voices of white pundits and politicians calling for calm, calling for inaction, and calling for … waiting.
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity,” King wrote from the Birmingham jail. “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.'”
Advent cannot be about waiting this year. It can’t be about the pious, calm spirituality that waits. Waiting isn’t enough anymore. Perhaps it never has been.
White commentators and bystanders ask why the protesting, why the marching, why the die-ins, why the demonstrations with all the yelling, screaming, and disruption. Let King remind us, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”
Patience is no longer a virtue in Advent. I do not believe that we are called to wait. I do believe there are some things we can do though, perhaps a few more appropriate words for Advent.
This Advent, we don’t need you to bring up crime statistics. We don’t need you to try and explain what’s going on as you see it. We don’t need you to try to justify it, because it happens over and over and over again. This is a word to my fellow white people: feel this pain. There is not a way to make this all OK, stop looking for it. Don’t try and find a way to make it better. Weep, mourn, and gnash some teeth. In her reflections on Advent from a few years ago, Enuma Okoro said, “lamenting is an act of faith because it speaks to our understanding that things are not as they should be.” 12 year old boys should not have to die on the playground. Police officers shouldn’t be able to kill unarmed people without going to trial. A man shouldn’t be choked to death for selling cigarettes. A man shouldn’t be killed shopping in Wal-Mart. If you want to say something about what’s happening this Advent season, mourn for these souls. Weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn.
I think a supremely better word than waiting is yearning when it comes to Advent. We don’t sit around twiddling our thumbs until Jesus comes back and makes it right. We ache at the very core of our beings because things are not right. We get angry and can’t make the feeling go away. Advent is my favorite season of the church year, but this year I hate it. I hate it because people are dying and other people are saying that’s OK. I hate it because the Kingdom isn’t here and things aren’t right. I hate it because I don’t want the next news story to be about one of my friends. That hatred is not wrath, it is yearning for something better. That’s what we need to be doing this Advent. We do not need to wait. We cannot afford to wait. We must feel our guts turn inside out with pain because things have gone so, so wrong. We must yearn for a better world.
None of that matters, though, unless we change. The white clergy in Birmingham did not really want change. They wanted the problem to go away and they didn’t want to have to do anything about it. Too many white folks in this country want racism to just go away. We need to understand that if racism is going to go away, it requires change! It requires for you to change, it requires me to change, it requires the whole system to change! The system, friends, is not broken. It is acting just like it is supposed to act. We need to start thinking — we needed to start a long time ago — about how everything can be changed. It’s not enough for you to think you’re not racist. It’s not about you. We could ship all the racists to the moon and there would still be racism. We need change, and we need it now. It cannot wait.
What does all that lamenting, yearning, and changing look like? I don’t know. I’m doing my best to try and find out in solidarity with my sisters and brothers. What can you do though, seriously? Go to a die-in. Lie on the ground for four and a half minutes in protest of those four and a half awful hours Michael Brown was dead in the street. Figure out what yearning looks like by hearing the voices of the communities of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice — and yes, the voices of Ferguson. Start talking about change with people in your community. How can we make black lives matter in your community? Where do black lives not matter and how can we change that? And don’t just leave it at talk.
This Christmas is going to be hard. Don’t let it be easy. Don’t just open presents and laugh with family. We need to cry. We need to scream and shout. We cannot afford to let the outrage, the mourning, and the lament to end. We passed that point a long time ago. If you let Christmas slide on by without hearing the cry of the oppressed, you’re in for a rude awakening. Remember, just after Christmas there is another holy day we too often forget: The Massacre of the Innocents.
Jesus’ birth has been surrounded by the deaths of innocent people since the beginning. It’s not the first-century mothers and children of Bethlehem this time (though the modern mothers and children of Bethlehem could use your tears, too), it’s the mothers, the brothers, the sisters, the fathers, and all the families and friends of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and way too many others:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ (Matthew 2:18, NRSV)
It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas, and we need to open our eyes and see the world for what it is.