I went to sleep Wednesday night with an E-pistle to write. In my mind, it was going to be “get your hands dirty for Christmas,” an invitation to Creche-tending as a remedy for the disconnected materialism of Christmas. I might have extended that invitation all the way to volunteering at Old First”s other hands-on ministries as well (make a meal for the shelter or give out clean clothes on Saturday morning).
But after a long night of tossing and turning, but little sleep, by dawn, there was no possibility I was going to write that E-pistle. Somehow in the fruitfulness of the darkness, my narrative had morphed into “our hands are already dirty.”
I still recommend feeding and mucking the animals. It’s both the practice and the worship of the One who took the form of a slave to be born among and serve the lowly. It’s closer — even if only modeling — to Jesus’ life than many of our boozy holiday parties and excessive malls. It can serve as, at the least, a nod to imitating Christ. An act of humility. And contrition. Because we have failed to create a world that welcomes Christ. Because we have organized a society that fails to be worthy of all God’s sons and daughters. (Sign up here for one or more of the twice daily “Creche care” slots between Dec. 11 and 29.)
But, church, we don’t need barnyard muck. Our hands are already dirty. Because we keep washing our hands of so much.
A close friend sent me a text Wednesday evening from the City Hall Tree Lighting celebration. Protestors were drowning out children singing. Did she text because I might be among them? I heard and understood her frustration, sadness, even helplessness.
But I find the greater sorrow in there being such an awful moment in America — where so late, we’ve still got so far yet to go. So much unrelenting injustice, so many deaths such that people need to fill public spaces and take over holy days with protests. And shout down children singing.
But that’s where we find ourselves. Because there are children in our country, and this very city, and their families, particularly their brothers and fathers, who are not safe. Who are being hurt. Incarcerated en masse. Killed. As if they are expendable. Less than children of God.
I haven’t spoken much about deadly incidents with the police. I haven’t even explained how racism is a sin of pride. Because I haven’t known what I could say that might make a difference. Because I have appreciated how many smart, passionate, articulate voices are being raised. (I have also been desperately thankful that people in our own church have already been working since last Spring on organizing “A Sacred Conversation on Race” for us.)
But after the grand jury on Staten Island failed to indict, as a week earlier a grand jury had likewise done in St. Louis County, I fear and hope and believe and pray that these racial incidents are becoming a groundswell. Like blood crying out from the land that’s already been watered with too much with blood.
I cried Thursday morning. For all the black and brown people I love. And for those who I don’t know. And for those I don’t like. Because Jesus teaches they are my neighbors too. For what I can barely imagine their realities must be like. And I cried for the country that ties all our lives together, even if in a knot or like a noose.
My eyes were wet as I passed an African American mom and her grade school son waiting for the #2 bus headed north at 16th and Girard. I had to dry my face in the last car of the Broad Street express train as I listened to two women speak: “Before that, they were hanging us from trees.” And as I got off the SEPTA train in the suburbs, I wondered if this was what if felt like to be a white South African of good will during Apartheid– wishing to know, but not knowing what to do to dismantle a whole ingrained and reinforced cultural and economic system?
There comes a time for the church to take a stand and act for justice. For Christ’s sake (I use the phrase literally), our silence implicates us: passivity that accepts the world as it is. Too many police killings of unarmed men. For this country’s sake, and the well-being of the most vulnerable, can we continue to turn a blind eye?
At Christmas Christians celebrate a child born into the poverty and oppression whose grew up to an unjust death. Our God so loved this horribly broken world (that breaks too many of us) enough to choose incarnation — I suspect, knowing full well how that would work out…
How then can that same church not stand for and with every child, woman and man who is outcast and alone, mistrusted and at risk, betrayed and denied? Whatever waning authority the church still has must be invested winning justice and protecting those who would be hurt. We must stage our own die-ins in the name of the one who died for us.
Perhaps, shout downs, blocking highways and taking over public spaces, however peaceably, aren’t your style. They may not be the way for the church either. How then can a faith community whose name includes “protest” effectively live out and share its beliefs?
Truthfully, I don’t know what we should do. But the words “I can’t breathe” for me right now aren’t just the last words of a man unjustly killed. They are how I feel before the sickness that continues to plague this country. How I feel when I think about our responsibility as the church of Jesus Christ. These three words, my desperate plea for the Spirit to help us. Lord, show us a way when there seems no way.
But I do have one suggestion, a first step. My colleague, the Rev. Katie Mulligan, has been using Ruth’s words from the Hebrew Scriptures in this context. She introduces them by telling of a time when her tenure (and thereby her livelihood as a single parent of two) was rumored to be ending. She contacted her colleague to see if he could shed any light on the rumor.
He couldn’t. But responded: “Where you go, I go, Naomi.” As Katie immediately understood, “In one brief sentence, he invoked a whole book of Scripture.” In six words, a promise without limit or end: I will stay by you. You matter that much to me. You are not alone. You have me, someone by your side — all that I am and all that I can offer. I’ve thrown my lot in with you.
Does that sound familiar, church? It should. It’s what God says to us in Jesus. It’s incarnation in everyday language. I am coming into the world so that I can walk with you. God’s promise—Emmanuel; I am with you always.
As God’s people following the child born in a manger and crucified among thieves, we too are to go to and stay with those who are hurting and wronged (right along with those who are hurtful and wrong). To walk the whole and holy way beside them, even if those steps occasion our suffering. A radical solidarity that might better be known in the church simply as faithfulness.
Too often, understandably, we’d rather distance ourselves. We acknowledge these deaths as tragic. But we don’t want to identify with the victims. Or be associated with them. We deny any connection. Sort of like Peter on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. To protect ourselves and our people. You hear it all the time these days:
“Certainly these are complicated situations; there are so many mitigating circumstances, individual and social, historical and cultural.” “What do we expect except inevitable, however tragic mistakes, when a group of people have to be armed to protect the peace.” “The eyewitnesses’ testimonies even conflict; and everyone seems to have a different perspective.” “Well, if it happens more often to Black men, there must be some reason, even if it’s not any individual’s fault.”
People who can afford to get some distance. These incidents are not inevitable. This is not police business as usual. Nor somehow the fault of the communities who are victims of violence and injustice. So we reassure ourselves and make it clear to everyone else — these deaths are someone else’s losses.
Is that how God sees these killings? Think about that for a moment. Not how the Black community is responding. Or how whites see it? Or how you understand this situation? Or how someone you disagree is looking at it.
Ask yourself, how does God look at these killings? What’s God’s response? Does God pull back? Turn away. Walk off. Disappear. Shrug sacred shoulders or wash holy hands?
Or, to quote Bill Coffin, is God the first one to cry? And the one that lays down his life for us. After all, the incarnated One is more of a “where you are, I am; what you suffer, I suffer” companion. And his sons are lying dead in the streets of Ferguson and Staten Island. And God’s heart-broken.
Likewise, for the church of Jesus Christ, the world’s victims can never be seen as someone else’s losses. Instead, because we are Christians, they are inevitably our own. Michael and Eric. Our unarmed son shot dead and left lying in the street. Our father or husband choked to death for selling a loose cigarette. There they lie, dead. Alongside of Akai, Darrien, Ezell, John, Omar, Tamir, Tanesha… and all the rest.
Our own brothers and sisters. Our children. Our mothers and fathers. Our Neighbors. And Intimates. Our beloved who were killed.
God comes to be with us at Christmas. Isn’t faithfulness about drawing near and sticking close by? Even if that means that we need to identify and mourn the killing of our very own loved ones.
How would that change our celebration of Christmas this year? How would that help the church find its vocation protesting?
See you in church,