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“Fear Not: The Work of Justice as a Reproductive Rights Issue”

This blog post was originally written for the Scarritt Bennett Center blog.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in her home, he said, “Fear not.” These encouraging words have been uttered throughout the Biblical and Gospel texts to many people whom God has chosen to have a special role in the world (Hagar, Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Joseph and many more). When Mary heard Gabriel speak, what fear do you think these words were dispelling? The song “Mary Did You Know,” popularized by Clay Aiken, may shed light on this issue:

“Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand?

Did you know that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?

When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?”

If Mary had any idea what she was getting into (which it seems she did, since she asked “How can this be?”…let’s be real, she had doubts, wouldn’t you?!) she would have been afraid. If her child was going to do all of the miraculous things listed in this song (giving sight, calming the storm, delivering the world, ruling the nations, etc.), she must have known it wouldn’t be easy. When told that her child would be the Messiah, it must have been downright terrifying. Many people venerate Mary’s courageousness, being an unwed pregnant teen and accepting God’s call in her life. For me, the amazing part is that despite the fear that must have been present in that room, Mary chose to accept the annunciation and become pregnant and bring Jesus her child into the world, knowing full well that the work that he would do in his life, the way he lived, would go against the state religion, would push people out of their comfort zones and would cause Jesus her child to die by capital punishment, by the state.

Some think Jesus was simply born to die, but I believe Mary chose to bring Jesus into the world to demonstrate living in a way that would make it possible for others to live. She carried the baby Jesus in her womb and brought Jesus into the world to bring about not only her redemption, but the world’s redemption. She brought Jesus her child into the world to bring about justice in a way that brings powerholders down and lifts up the lowly. Jesus was not born to die, but to live for justice and further the possibility of peace in the world, bring us all into a community of love and respect and justice. We can learn from this incredible Biblical woman that the things we birth into being bring us salvation. I am reminded of a powerful quote from “To Be Virgin” by Loretta Ross-Gotta in Watch for the Light: Meditations for Advent and Christmas: “Told all her life that she is ‘nothing,’ the girl discovers in herself another, deeper reality. A mystery; something holy, with a potential for salvation.”

Today, given the news of racial violence and strife, both domestic and international, the idea of having children and bringing children into this world is scary. There is so much violence and so much racism and so much danger everywhere in this world. I reiterate a previous question: are some families in this world bringing children in the world just to have violence perpetrated against them, just to die? Let that sink in.

In light of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and Detroit, many women of color are raising the issues of “reproductive justice” alongside “racial justice” and #blacklivesmatter, and rightly so. Jasmine Burnett, a Black feminist activist, was quoted in this article from ThinkProgress:

“We look at the right to have a child, to not have a child, and to parent your child in a safe and sustainable community free from violence…If you aren’t safe in your community because you’re racially profiled by the police, and you can’t walk from your home to a clinic or to a hospital to access the services you need, then that’s not really a full articulation of reproductive justice.”

Upon hearing the news of the nonidictment of Darren Wilson, Tamura Lomax at The Feminist Wire, wrote:

“I am a black mother and a black wife. I fear for my beloveds’ safety everyday. Ain’t I feminist too? Ain’t the potential murder of my loved ones and how that may impact me and others in my community a feminist concern too?”

An RH Reality Check article writes:

“[Hannah Giorgis] shares this waking nightmare with countless other Black mothers who live in fear of their children falling to the vengeful divinity of the state. “Any force that systematically and unapologetically turns unconsenting Black wombs into graveyards,” she says, “is a reproductive justice issue.””

The article also quotes Imani Gandy, a Senior Legal Analyst at RH Reality Check, who tweeted “I saw so many people on Twitter saying ‘I don’t want to have/raise black children in this country.’ That is a reproductive justice issue.” We must not shut our eyes and ears to these women of color writing about their deepest fears. We must listen and bear holy witness to them.

And yet, we are told to “fear not” because God is with us. But how can we disabuse ourselves of our fear in such a world? Today, we are bringing children into the world with the full knowledge that the way we will teach them to live, the way they will be educated to work for justice for all people and the planet, might get them killed. The work of justice is dangerous. The work of peace is dangerous. The work of peace and justice will attract the powers and principalities and they will try their darndest to stop us.

By thinking about the way that Jesus died, was killed, we can catch a glimpse of what the purpose of Jesus’ life and death was. If we look beyond the death, beyond the simple point of salvation, we can see that Jesus was killed for the way he lived, killed for talking back and acting out against the state. Jesus was not white, ergo Jesus did not have white privilege. Jesus was a low-class, backwater, rural boy born under questionable circumstances and out of wedlock to a carpenter and his wife. Jesus was a person of color, Semitic, a Jew. He probably had a beard, as many religious men still wear today. He was killed for being a peace activist, for healing the sick, for feeding the hungry, for letting women worship, for reaching across boundaries of race, ethnicity, and country–exactly the things that we are taught to work for in the Gospels. God has given us the power of community to help us overcome the dangerous and dark world in which we find ourselves. We are told to “fear not” as we work for justice, knowing there have been many who have gone before and many who will come after us.

One of the beautiful things about Christmas is way that God aligned God’s self with the human condition, with human suffering, and recognized the incredible need for justice in this life, in this world. Humans had, then as now, been hurting each other and the planet, and God brought God’s self into the world in the form of Jesus. The very creation, the very firmament of our society is “groaning” and “crying out” according to Romans 8, and it is our responsibility as Christians, as people who are dedicated to working for justice, to release creation (and each other) from bondage and bring about a new way of being in the world. Another world is possible, and through the vigils and marches and die-ins and conversations and co-suffering and compassion in the midst of racial strife and resistance to violence, we are able to glimpse that world. We are able to show it to each other, and through our lives, make it possible for all of us to live in that world, in the here and now.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Emmanuel, “God with us.” We welcome you to our world and into our hearts. We recognize that you have always been with us, and always shall be us. We thank you that we can join with you, and never rest from, the work of freedom, justice, and peace in this world.

Articles for further reading:

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Advent and Waiting for Justice

I love advent. I recently wrote a blog post about it for my job, complete with some quotes from one of my favorite advent devotional reflections and a sturdy condemnation of the commercialization of Christmas. But this year is really challenging.

I started out well, with my three (yes, three) advent books by my bedside, reading and reflecting and journaling each morning or evening, listening for how God is talking to me in this advent season. But then stress about my work, friends, house, visitors, grad school, schedules and family piled up a little too high… and instead of spending the weekend reading and being with God, I spent a good chunk of it in my pajamas, in bed, watching Sherlock and drinking cocoa. It was good, and it is part of the way I allow myself to rest, but it threw me off my schedule. As a result, I feel less centered, less sure of myself, and more inclined to hopelessness instead of expectant waiting.

But there are many reasons for hopelessness this year (and every year, to be frank). For the past four months, race crimes and the (in)justice system of the United States have been on constant alert, on constant scrawl across the bottom of my TV, computer screen, and brain. I am glad to be choosing to notice and read and hear and see the things that have passed concerning the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many others; a step in the work of using my privilege to lift up the voices and struggles of people who do not share in that privilege is refusing ignorance and being informed. I am choosing to see, because so many do not, and it is way beyond the time for seeing and hearing and acting.

I do not have much faith in this country right now. I’m generally not a super patriotic person, though I do own a denim shirt with stars on it; I love going to Fourth of July parades; and I can’t help tearing up when I see military reunions (that’s not just patriotism, it’s basic humanity…woah, emotions…). Congress is holding President Obama’s hands behind his back on so many issues, including immigration reform. Republicans just became the majority again. Michigan just passed a bill that will allow the government to validate certain religions over others, and it’s ironically titled “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” And, at the forefront of my, and so many others’, consciousness: the fact that there are not even indictments of the police officers who have brought about the death of so many black-bodied kin is utterly shameful and disgusting…forget “guilty” and “not-guilty,” we won’t even have a chance to TRY these people in court. Isn’t the fact that a man exhibiting non-threatening behavior was choked to death on camera probable cause? Isn’t the fact that many eyewitnesses said that Mike Brown was turning around with his hands up when he was shot more than six times probable cause? A recent undergrad slam poet at Vanderbilt University recently said: “It doesn’t take 100 days to decide whether to indict someone; it takes 100 days to figure out how to lie to the people.” There are so many facts and so many questions and conversations and hate speech swirling around that it is a miracle that anyone can decide anything efficiently…and honestly.

When I think about the family of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Renisha McBride and many others, I can only think of how difficult the grieving process must be. Can they even get enough personal space away from media to engage in their grief in the way they must be needing to? Eric Garner’s widow Esaw was eloquent about the loss their family has endured and that “sorry” doesn’t make it better. And Mike Brown’s parents requested 4.5 minutes of silence after the announcement of the non-indictment…but many people did not adhere to that wish as they themselves were outraged and in pain.

In church several weeks ago, the gospel text was the beheading of John the Baptist  (Matthew 14:1-13).

14 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, 2 and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

3 Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much 7 that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” 9 The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted 10 and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. 13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.

My pastor pointed out that after Jesus learned of his cousin’s murder, he “withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (Mt 14:13 NIV). There are so many words evoking the need for rest in the last verse: “withdrew,” “by boat,” “privately,” “solitary.” Jesus had to leave the land and go out onto the water so that he could have a moment’s peace. I can’t help thinking of the way that after these highly publicized killing of black men (and a child), the families must be feeling the need to withdraw and mourn and grieve by themselves. Jesus grieved the loss of his cousin, the man who baptized him, the voice in the wilderness that preceded his own coming.

And yet, not even this withdrawal could keep the crowds from Jesus’ side. Matthew goes on to pen the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (five thousand “men, besides women and children,” so all told, it is possible that Jesus fed upwards of fifteen thousand). Jesus “had compassion on [the crowds] and healed their sick” even though he had to return to shore and perform throughout his process of grieving. He returns to a solitary space after the crowds are fed, going up to a mountainside by himself to pray. He has to disturb his grieving process to help others’ process their hunger and their need. I wonder if the families of these black victims have been pushed into a similar place, needing to respond to the pain and trauma of others in the midst of their own.

Jesus has compassion. Jesus does not refuse to help people just because he needs some restoration for himself. He is moved to act, to turn his grieving into a catalyst for feeding those who were hungry. I recently heard a quote (not sure who said it first!) saying, “Change will come when the grieving are agents of social justice.”

So what does this have to do with advent? There’s a lot of waiting going on in this world, a lot of timestamps that are fixed in my brain.

4 ½ minutes: how long Mike Brown’s body lay in the street

8: the number of times Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.”

12: the age of Tamir Rice, who was shot before the cop car slowed to a stop.

100+ days: the time the grand jury in Missouri took to find no probable cause to indict Darren Wilson.

And through all of this, there is the waiting for justice. There is the waiting for people’s stories to be shared, heard. There is the waiting for the many racist and bigoted people to stop talking themselves in circles and shut up and listen to people who have been literally dying to be heard. There is the waiting for racial justice in this country…not only equality, but justice. There is the waiting for people to stop telling themselves that the United States is “beyond race”: you only need to look at racialized cartoons of our mixed race black president to see that there is no way in hell that this country is “beyond” race (or class, or sex…and definitely not gender, sexuality, ability, age, or geographic privilege).

All of these thoughts have been swirling in my brain and it’s been hard for me to relax and read my advent devotionals. What can be so hard about that?

The problem is that when I think about advent, it’s not actually possible to relax.

The Gospel is not there so we can relax. Nothing is relaxing about the stories of the struggle for the low to be lifted up. The coming of the Messiah is not so we can relax. Having the savior of the world living a life that got him killed via capital punishment is not relaxing. Jesus never told us to relax, instead he told us that we would suffer for his sake, for the sake of bringing more light to this dark world. And if there ever were a time when we really needed a time of advent, it is now. To me, part of advent is the permission to sit in the dark before the dawn of the light of the world, and contemplate why this world is so broken and so desecrated and why we need God oh-so-badly. Advent is the time period in which I can look at this world in pain and think about how much God’s justice and peace is needed. And this year, the brokenness of this world is ever obvious and prevalent.

O Come Emmanuel, “God with us.” We need you now more than ever.

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The coming of the commercialization of Christmas

This blog post was originally published for and on Scarritt Bennett Center’s blog.

Soooo, I wrote this blog post a couple weeks ago about the consumer culture of Black Friday. Naturally, the day after Thanksgiving, I was going to go to The Santa Claus Parade in Peoria, IL, which basically celebrates the commercialization of Christmas. Go figure. Now, I’m a total sucker for the romantic Hollywood movies about Christmas and true love and giving gifts, all of which seem to take place in a big city in a department store (cough, New York, cough, Gimbels, cough). Whether you’re a native Clevelander going to meet Santa and asking for a Red Ryder BB Gun or Will Ferrell dressed in much-too-tight green leggings and blithely quipping: “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” Christmas is pretty commercial. We are bombarded since at least October with advertisements for “the best gift of all” to give to our loved ones.

As a December baby, I was always kind of frustrated at Christmas, and thereby Jesus, for having the audacity to celebrate a birthday a mere ten days after mine. I had no place in Christmas cheer or decorating because all of the lights, tinsel, and wreaths were for Christmas. December 15th would pass and I’d be kinda upset that I didn’t get large presents for my day, but I had to wait until Jesus’ birthday to do that. I had to share. It was hard. (Go hug a Sagittarius, they will appreciate it).

Now, advent is my favorite time of year by far. Those who know me probably get frustrated and annoyed with how much I reference the birth of Christ and “the coming of the light into the world,” etc. Amid all of the holiday hustle and bustle, something beautiful and wondrous is happening. No, it’s not the fact that Barnes & Noble has a great sale on the Harry Potter book set. It’s the inbreaking of God into this human world, into this beautiful creation. Again the breath of God infuses our lives and changes our world.

On one hand, December 25th is a day where we wake up too early, open brightly wrapped packages under a practically bedazzled tree, and then spend the day reading our new books and watching our new movie sets before eating entirely too much food and pie (though the last one is hard to do!). That’s probably too cynical, but you probably have your own pictures of the commercialization of Christmas in your mind. From the beautiful Victorian postcards and advertisements with St. Nick popping open a Coca-Cola to the Polar Express and the Grinch’s warming heart and, of course, It’s A Wonderful Life, our Western United American society has become used to having a few images of “the perfect Christmas” and spending a bunch of time trying to achieve this picture postcard image in our own homes. That’s not to say we don’t have beautiful traditions with family and friends, but to consider how Christmas has become something that is marketable…do we even know the point anymore?

First, let’s acknowledge the reindeer in the room. The United States is not a Christian nation. Not all Americans celebrate Christmas. Are those of us who do celebrate this holiday showing hospitality to the folks who don’t by saying, “Well, at least you get a day off from work, so that’s enough” instead of actually learning about and respecting their holy days? Sales at Target and lots of movies with mistletoe in them don’t equal the acceptance and affirmation we should be giving other folks’ holidays.

Second, what is the true meaning of Christmas? Yeah, yeah, I know this is the central question to most movies and TV episodes that air between Thanksgiving and January 6, but really…what are we celebrating? The very name of the holiday references the “Christ,” the one whom Christians call the Messiah. This day is in honor of the birth of Jesus and the coming of God into our midst.

One of my favorite advent devotionals is by Loretta Ross-Gotta, entitled “To Be Virgin.” She writes: “Jesus observed, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). Yet we act, for the most part, as though without us God can do nothing. We think we have to make Christmas come, which is to say we think we have to bring about the redemption of the universe on our own. When all God needs is a willing womb, a place of safety, nourishment, and love. ‘Oh, but nothing will get done,’ you say. ‘If I don’t do it, Christmas won’t happen.’ And we crowd out Christ with our fretful fears…” (Wait for the Light: Meditations for Advent and Christmas, 98-99).

Who makes Christmas happen? I think Ross-Gotta is right, sometimes we do act like we have to do everything ourselves. This is not to say that we can accomplish nothing on our own; indeed, God has given us individual talents as well as the wealth of knowledge and love and care that is in community, but we have to start living like God is real. We can neither sit back and wait for God to fix the world nor pretend like our own actions alone will change things. We must live up to our call to be co-conspirators with God, and bring about the grace and peace and mercy in how we live and move and have our being.

Ross-Gotta goes on to issue a challenge to her readers, a challenge which I bring before you now: “Imagine a Christmas service where the worshipers come in their holiday finery to find a sanctuary empty of all the glittering decorations, silent of holiday carols….What if on Christmas Eve people came and sat in the dim pews, and someone stood up and said, ‘Something happened here while we were all out at the malls, while we were baking cookies and fretting about whether we bought our brother-in-law the right gift: Christ was born. God is here’? We wouldn’t need the glorious choruses and the harp and the bell choir and the organ. We wouldn’t need the tree strung with lights. We wouldn’t have to deny that painful dissonance between the promise and hope of Christmas and a world wracked with sin and evil. There wouldn’t be that embarrassing conflict over the historical truth of the birth stories and whether or not Mary was really a virgin. And no one would have to preach sermons to work up our belief. All of that would seem gaudy and shallow in comparison to the sanctity of that still sanctuary. And we, hushed and awed by something greater and wiser and kinder than we, would kneel of one accord in the stillness…Probably few of us have the faith or the nerve to tamper with hallowed Christmas traditions on a large scale, or with our other holiday celebrations. But a small experiment might prove interesting. What if, instead of doing  something, we were to be something special?”

Christmas is special. So we should celebrate it. Advent is special. So we should celebrate it. But aren’t we always in a time of advent? Aren’t we always waiting for the goodness and grace of God to show itself in the midst of this really screwed up, harsh reality of a world? Aren’t we always waiting for the voice inside us to tell us to reach out a hand, meet people’s eyes, listen intently and love unconditionally? Isn’t that just the state of how we live? Waiting for the strange, unthinkable grace to align itself with us in our human condition, understanding the weeping, laughing, desiring, mourning and loving pieces of us?

I guess the goodness of advent is that it through all of the expectant waiting, we are sure Christmas, Christ, the light of the world is coming. Perhaps it’s already here, dwelling among us. It doesn’t need anything extravagant to be welcomed. It doesn’t need songs of grandeur and presents and honor. The light of the world is naked and shivering before us, waiting to be shown hospitality, waiting to be brought into our homes and our hearts. That’s advent. That’s Christmas. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.