Nick and Carmen Perry last week welcomed the birth of their second child, Nadia Grace. Both mother and child are doing well, but considering the challenges Nick and Carmen had to overcome to have any children at all, and after some difficulty in Nadia’s birth, “Nadia” and “Grace” seem especially appropriate names for this new child. Nadia in Slavic means “hope,” and Grace means, well, “grace,” or “God’s favor.” Nadia Grace: hope combined with God’s favor. What a great Advent name!
Can you imagine the song Carmen might have sung preparing for Nadia’s birth? What might any mother sing while preparing for the birth of a child? Of course, it would be a song of gratitude and profound love. Surely Mary would have sung such a song at the news of Jesus’ approaching birth. When Mary sings about what her pregnancy means to her and to her world, you might expect her to sing of her joy and love as a mother.
But that’s not what she does. She sings instead of God’s judgment on social and economic injustice. Her song, the Magnificat, is a sharp critique of her world’s political and economic power system. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46b, 52-53).
Mary understood, as the disciples who would become the early church understood, that the birth of Jesus was not a simple blessing of a mother’s hope for her family. It was the fulfillment of what Isaiah understood to be God’s great promise of the Messiah, a promise for all humankind: “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4). The story of Christmas come is the story of justice established.
Mary’s song was what one writer called “a trumpet blast from heaven announcing that injustice would not go unchallenged.” The challenge to the established powers of the day was so real and imminent, when King Herod heard of it he and his cronies set out to resist it by murdering every child under two years of age in and around Jerusalem.
The Advent we observe and the Incarnation we will celebrate at Christmas, if they are to be authentic, will announce a real and present challenge to injustice in our day. If the gospel is to be relevant in our time and place, it’s going to do more than give us warm feelings about the birth of a baby. It’s going to do a lot more than make us feel how much we are loved. It’s going to continue to name and confront human systems of social, political, and economic injustice wherever they exist, even when they exist closer to home than we might like to admit.
Which brings me to Ferguson and the conversations raised in our consciousness since Michael Brown’s death. They are conversations identified on the Bill Moyers blog, three of which I mentioned in my Ruminations last week, and one additional conversation begun among some of us since last Sunday. They are, among other topics, conversations about racism and white privilege. And the naming and challenging of racism and white privilege and other forms of injustice are the essential work of the gospel during Advent and Christmas or anytime we become aware of them as Christians.
When I was growing up in the South in the 1950s, racism and white privilege were in the air I breathed, so effectively programed into me I didn’t know they were part of me. Then life enlightened me, and I no longer believe that one race – my white race, for example – is superior to any other race. And I don’t engage, as most of you don’t engage, in abusive or aggressive behavior toward members of another race based on a belief in racial superiority.
But that limited view of racism is not where the big problem is. Racism is more than that. It’s a whole system of practices, beliefs, social contracts, and legal structures that result in racial superiority, advantage, and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others.
Racism is the social, political, and economic system in this country in which a typical black household accumulates one-tenth the wealth of a typical white household. Racism is part of what gives Native Americans a life expectancy five years less than other Americans. Racism is what puts blacks in prison for all offenses at six times the rate of whites. Racism is what incarcerates blacks for drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites, although five times as many whites are using drugs.
Racism is the system of injustice, seldom directly observable, that gives me as a white person privilege and power that people of other races don’t have. And that’s the injustice that the Incarnation of Christ challenges today as it did in the days of King Herod. We might approach Christmas more faithfully and effectively, perhaps, if we replaced images of sweet baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths with images of the Rex Tremendum with nail-pierced hands and sleepless eye who comes to judge the living and the dead.
The God who comes in Christ is a dangerous God, dangerous to our status quo and to everything our culture has taught us about life and its values. Don’t seek a relationship with the Christ whose birth we celebrate if all you want is a lot of affirmation and a little touch-up here and there in your life. God is not into superficial remodeling or updating. In Christ, God has undertaken major restoration, right down to the foundation of our whole human system of relationships.
“Love came down at Christmas,” Christina Rossetti wrote in her poem, “Love all lovely, Love divine.” And that Love reaches out to manhandle us, to take hold of the broken pieces of our lives and wrench them back into alignment so they can heal properly. We flinch and try to withdraw at the pain of a therapeutic touch, but it’s the way we are restored to the divine image.
After serving a people of the padded pew for so long, I wonder: Do I still have a dangerous faith, if I ever did, one in which I will give myself to establishing God’s justice – “remembering what belongs to whom and returning it to them,” as Bible scholar Walter Breuggemann defined justice – even if what belongs to others is something I’ve considered my own for so long I don’t remember a time before it was taken from them?
Is God calling you to leave your comfort zone and invite a neighbor to church or Bible study? Is God calling you to take a bolder step and give sacrificially of your time and resources to change the social, political, and economic systems of our community and nation? Is God calling you to come to a face-to-face ministry with the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the outcast, the unemployed, and the prisoner and to come to terms with what they need, in practical detail and for each person by name?
I don’t know how the church will challenge the Herod who sits on his throne today. And I don’t know how those on the throne of power and privilege will respond. Will it be with another Slaughter of the Innocents, or another execution on Calvary? But knowing our situation, naming and confessing it, seems a good place to let this dangerous God of ours begin the work of Christmas. It may just be the place where Hope and Grace meet in a new Incarnation.