Christmas Is About Ferguson
Mary, the mother of Jesus:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”(Lk. 1:46-48, 52-53)
Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist:
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God”(Lk: 1:76-78)
Thus begins the celebration of the coming of Christ. Mary, the bearer of Jesus, interprets her pregnancy as the revelation of God’s concern for the poor, the hungry, and the humble in contrast to his judgment of the enthroned and the rich. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, interprets his son’s birth as the revelation that, through Jesus, sins will be forgiven, repentance will be proclaimed, and God will show tender mercy. In the first two interpretations of the Incarnation, the salvation of the individual and the rectification of the institution are proclaimed as sinners are forgiven and the oppressed are lifted up.
In this article, I want to argue that white theology in America is far too prone to overemphasizes the salvation of the individual (Zechariah’s celebration), while neglecting Christ’s salvation of the institution (Mary’s celebration). In doing so, white Christians lack language for listening to and understanding black voices and bodies that are consistently the victims of systemic injustice. Much response to Ferguson and its aftermath by Christians reflect this stunted vision of the gospel.
In one of the key texts of the Advent season, the book of Isaiah, written centuries before the birth of Christ, explains how the coming Messiah’s birth will deal with Israel’s (the “his” in this passage) oppression:
“For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”-Isaiah 9:4-7
Many church services will only include Isaiah 9:6 (“for to us a child is born…”), a verse rightly recognizing the divinity of the coming Messiah, while neglecting the context for his coming (the oppression of God’s people). (As an aside) How ironic is it that those who are most adamant about believing in the “inerrancy” and “sufficiency” of scripture are those that tend to neglect one of the central missions of the Messiah, the uplifting of the oppressed. Those that are most excited about the good news of the “gospel,” are those that neglect good news for the victims of systemic injustice. It is my contention that those Christian communities that are quickest to recognize the “depravity” of humanity and yet do not respond to systemic injustice are to be the most ashamed. Those who believe in the sinfulness of humanity should not be surprised that our depravity extends to the systems and institutions that we create. Further, those who are quickest to believe that Christ came to save both “Jew and Greek” should also be quickest to recognize racial reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel.
Enter Christian responses to Ferguson and the killing of Mike Brown. Many readers can conjure up Facebook debates and Twitter wars in which “facts of the case” are argued over and over and over. Were his hands up? Was he attacking Wilson? He stole those cigarillos! And on and on.1
Pastor Thabati Anyabwile, writing before the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, responds in an article entitled “Why We Never “Wait For All the Facts” Before We Speak”:
““Ferguson” isn’t about Wilson. “Ferguson” as I use it is about black-and brown-skinned people and our encounter with this country’s criminal justice system, from the police to the courts. It’s about a long history of being policed rather than protected and served. It’s about a set of experiences so ubiquitous there’s hardly any African American that hasn’t met at least suspicion from police authority and often harassment or much worse. I refuse to allow people to make this story solely about the facts involving Wilson because in doing so they conveniently erase the bigger pattern of facts about injustice.”2
“Ferguson” is about systemic historical injustice that goes beyond a single case. It is about the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies, in which the majority of drug users and dealers are white, and yet three fourths of those imprisoned for drug offenses are black and brown.3 It is about stop-and-frisk policies by the police that target poor black communities, tearing families apart rather than rooting out crime. It is about young black males being 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts.4
Now, with the killing of Eric Garner and police practices that continue to perpetuate systemic injustice, how will white Christians respond? I can tell you that a “gospel” that does not recognize Christ’s power to break the chains of oppression will not lead to followers that listen to and advocate for the voices and bodies of the oppressed. A Christmas story that merely recognizes Christ’s divinity and his grace for individual sinners will fail to recognize Christ’s identification with the marginalized and his mission to rectify systemic injustice. The Incarnation of God into the world means nothing less than the eradication of all sin–individual, institutional, and systemic–and the reconciliation of all that is broken. The celebration of Mary is the recognition that systemic injustice exists, that black lives matter, and that Christ’s coming upholds the oppressed. Christmas is about the specific lives that are impacted by institutions that perpetuate injustice (as seen in the photo above). Christmas is about Ferguson.
In his song, “Equally Skilled,” artist Jon Foreman echoes Micah 7, in which Israel is described as neglecting righteousness towards their neighbor and faithfulness towards the God who has been faithful to them. The writer, an Israelite himself, says that he will “wait for God my Savior” in the midst of present injustice. This Christmas season, may we look forward to the coming of Christ, waiting for the God who comes to save both individual sinners and institutions, embracing the call of Christ for us to be “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18) within this broken world.
“And both of our hands are equally skilled
At doing evil, equally skilled
At bribing the judges, equally skilled
At perverting justice, both of our hands, both of our hands
And both of His hands are equally skilled
At ruling evil, equally skilled
At judging the judges, equally skilled
Administering justice, both of His hands
Both of His hands are equally skilled
At showing me mercy, equally skilled
At loving the loveless, equally skilled
Administering justice, both of His hands, both of His hands”5
View Sources 1. One can see this within a prominent article thrown around on social media by many Christians. Within it, Walsh derides protesters for their ignorance of the facts of the case, neglecting to listen to their concern for systemic injustices. 2. Thabiti Anyabwile, “Why We Never “Wait For All the Facts” Before We Speak,” The Gospel Coalition, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2014/08/20/why-we-never-wait-for-all-the-facts-before-we-speak/ 3. Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 98 4. Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Eric Sagara, “Deadly Force, in Black and White,” ProPublica, http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white?utm_source=et&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter 5. http://www.songlyrics.com/jon-foreman/equally-skilled-lyrics/
Matt Walsh, “Hey Ferguson Protestors: Justice Has Been Done, But You Never Wanted Justice.” The Blaze, http://www.theblaze.com/contributions/hey-ferguson-protestors-justice-has-been-done-but-you-never-wanted-justice/
1. One can see this within a prominent article thrown around on social media by many Christians. Within it, Walsh derides protesters for their ignorance of the facts of the case, neglecting to listen to their concern for systemic injustices.
2. Thabiti Anyabwile, “Why We Never “Wait For All the Facts” Before We Speak,” The Gospel Coalition, http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2014/08/20/why-we-never-wait-for-all-the-facts-before-we-speak/
3. Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 98
4. Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Eric Sagara, “Deadly Force, in Black and White,” ProPublica, http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white?utm_source=et&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter