The Second Sunday of Advent: To Breathe in a New Heaven and a New Earth

eric-garner-police-brutality-ramsey-ortaComfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
her guilt is expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Isaiah 40:1-3)

The words of today’s mass readings for the second Sunday of Advent could not be more welcome in my heart. The recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers to stand trial for the deaths of black men in Ferguson and Staten Island weigh heavily on the hearts of many throughout the United States. These grand jury decisions and the many ensuing protests and acts of civil disobedience expose some of the brokenness of our society. As a nation, we begin to recognize in ever more concrete ways the gaps we need to close to meet the demands of justice, specifically racial justice.[1] As frustrated, saddened, and angered as I am by this and the many other daily injustices perpetrated on state and personal levels, I have found some measure of hope, consolation, and pride in the amazing strength in numbers of those who have demonstrated for social justice and civil rights – they would make straight in the wasteland a highway for the God of justice.

Now a quick sociological test: describe yourself in three words.

Just the first three words that come to mind.

Don’t overthink it. Go on. I’ll wait.

Do you have them? When I was first asked this question as an eighteen-year-old, I said something like, “smart, responsible, and friendly” – all character qualities. What this test often shows is that those in dominant positions often describe themselves by character qualities without naming those aspects of themselves that acknowledges their positions of social power. People of color will almost always describe themselves by race or ethnicity, so if you didn’t name your race, it’s a good sign that you’re either not aware of or are not willing to admit your racial privilege to others (and this is the same for gender, class, and sexual identity).

I have my friends, colleagues, and strangers to thank for helping me own up to my many privileges, and here I will admit I cannot remember a time when my family has ever had a discussion of race or white privilege, much more white supremacy. I am a highly educated, straight woman from a mostly white, mostly Catholic, mostly Brooklyn-based family; among any cross-section of the population, I am extremely privileged. Despite the world-class Jesuit education I have earned, there is no teacher like experience when it comes to fully understanding how much I have gained – undeservedly – because I am white.

Like many hard-working, good-hearted, middle-class white Americans, I can look back on my very happy and wholesome upbringing to say that my family showed their support for racial equality by just not talking about race, except to say and believe that no one should be treated differently because of the color of their skin. We believed, and still do, the words of Martin Luther King that people should be based on the content of their character, and so that is what we look for in others. Effectively, we showed our respect for racial difference and equality by not bringing it up in conversation and defending the rights of “minorities” when it was brought up. It seemed somehow inappropriate, even disrespectful, to bring up the topic of race, and so we never really had opportunity for self-examination of how racism persists because those in the dominant race (us and other whites) do not first recognize their privilege in order to undo the injustice of the larger racialized social construct.

I’m not blaming my family nor do I think less of them for the lack of conversations we never knew to have. I’m simply stating how it was for us and, I would say, for most white Americans: respect for racial difference was and still is a practiced colorblindness. Today, we know that that’s not what works because it denies real difference and uniqueness. Example: do you know any identical twins? Do they get miffed when you mistake one for the other? Yes, because they’re their own persons and can’t you take the time to recognize that? Imagine that writ large on a social scale: people want to be treated fairly but it does nothing to pretend we don’t acknowledge difference. I can honestly say that I know it won’t be the same for my family going forward, but I really do not know how it will be for other whites unless whites do more to make it socially acceptable for other whites to acknowledge racial difference. Theologically speaking, and borrowing analogically from the queer theology of Patrick Cheng, God made us different, whether by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, political worldview, so that we can grow to love each other across difference, because of the difference. We were made to grow and learn as people, and that is what it is to love and live, in the fullest sense of the words. We are meant to go out of ourselves to identify as one with those who are different and if we are not doing this over the course of our lives, we are not learning, not loving, and not living. 

If you are not haunted by the images of Eric Garner’s death, or his unheeded choking cries of “I can’t breathe,” I ask that you watch that video on repeat until you have a felt understanding of the lived experience of racial injustice that so many millions of the people across the country are protesting against. I’m not asking for you to agree with our reasons for protest – I just want you who would casually or fervently dismiss any cause for upset to get in an embodied, physical way some of the pain of being denied the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness simply because of the color of your skin. I want you to feel it in your tightened chest and clenched throat – to be paradigmatically changed by what you witness – because that is just a step in what it takes to do your part in preparing the way for the new heaven and new earth Christians especially look for in this Advent season.


[1] Remembering here that justice is defined as right relationship to one another – it is the active condition of lovingly holding ourselves and others to account.