When my phone started blowing up with notifications about the Ferguson grand jury decision, I was in a daze. I grabbed my pipe, poured the biggest single glass of whiskey I’ve ever had, and sat in my backyard in tears, alternating between retweeting others’ comments on the case and just staring at the sky. I watched and heard the helicopters above as they watched the Philadelphia protests below, mere blocks from my house.
I think part of my response was because of where my mind had been in the days leading up to the decision.
I recently pored over Cornel West’s biography and watched 12 Years a Slave. As the weather has gotten colder, the city’s marginalized and homeless have become more noticeable. An organization whose heart is in the right place, and who I otherwise love, put out some promotional materials that unintentionally showcased the degree to which racism and power structures are so ingrained and so unconscious. Last Sunday, I watched as Rudy Giuliani went shockingly racist on Meet The Press (what he said is wrong, by the way). For school, I watched a presentation on the Civil Right’s movement, and also read King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
And then the grand jury came back. No indictment.
As I sat in my backyard with all of these things colliding inside me, I felt an actual, tangible sense of despair. Though I often attack the present state of things, when it comes to the trajectory of the world, I’m generally a pretty optimistic person. As I’ve sat in my cool, hip urban existence where a diversity of people have to at least try and live together, as I watch lives changed in my social work job, and as I serve in my church and watch the truth of the Gospel have a real impact in our communities, I can get excited about the world that’s being built for my children.
But as I watched Ferguson play out, for the first time I had the thought that things might not be better for my kids. I thought back on King’s Letter. He could have written that to us today. From then until now, it seemed to me that nothing had changed. Black and brown bodies were still going to be sacrificed on the altars of economics, power, privilege, and comfort.
As the days go on and people pour over the grand jury records and find more and more and more and more and more and more and more reasons why these proceedings were an unjust farce, this feeling has only grown deeper.
What are we fighting for, if nothing is actually going to change? Yes, I can talk all day about how complete and perfect justice won’t come until the end of all things, but that’s not helpful now. Surely there is some realization on this side of heaven?
And it’s with this heaviness that we enter into Advent, the celebration of God coming among us in Jesus.
And yes, it’s a celebration, but Advent has a darker edge, too.
We spend so much time focusing on Jesus’ first Advent in the manger and all, but we spend less time talking about his second Advent at the end of all things. This season is meant to anticipate that Coming of Christ as well. And this year, perhaps more than other years, I feel that anticipation and hope.
And yet, as my namesake says: “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope at all. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
The reality and angst of Advent is that we live in between the ages. There is a very real absence and un-becoming in our Advent celebrations, because there is a degree to which Jesus was among us and will be among us, but is not now among us. We hope in Advent, but we only hope for what we don’t see.
And this year I look around and quite frankly, right now, I don’t see Jesus when it comes to the white-privileged world my black brothers and sisters live in. And I feel helpless. I feel sad. I feel angst.
And though it doesn’t lessen the anger, the frustration, or the feeling, something in me feels like–at least for this year–this is the right way for me to go into Advent. In doing so, part of me feels an extra kinship with my Jewish forbears who lived for so long crying out for their Messiah to come and make all things right. And honestly, part of me can relate to them even now when, in response to the claim that Jesus is their Messiah, they look around and say “this does not look like a world under the rulership of the Messiah.”
Indeed, it doesn’t.
One light in this, oddly enough, has been President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 commencement speech at Howard University. It’s remarkable and is everything I would want to say to White America today. Invoking the Advent imagery of light breaking into the darkness, he ends his speech with this:
For what is justice? It is to fulfill the fair expectations of man.
Thus, American justice is a very special thing. For, from the first, this has been a land of towering expectations…. Each could become whatever his qualities of mind and spirit would permit–to strive, to seek, and, if he could, to find his happiness.
This is American justice. We have pursued it faithfully to the edge of our imperfections, and we have failed to find it for the American Negro.
So, it is the glorious opportunity of this generation to end the one huge wrong of the American Nation and, in so doing, to find America for ourselves, with the same immense thrill of discovery which gripped those who first began to realize that here, at last, was a home for freedom.
All it will take is for all of us to understand what this country is and what this country must become.
The Scripture promises: “I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.”
Together, and with millions more, we can light that candle of understanding in the heart of all America.
And, once lit, it will never again go out.
Let us hope for what we do not see–that light. Welcome to Advent.
[image credit: Mark Rothko’s “No. 9 White and Black on Wine (1958)]