Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Christmas, Violence, and Being White in America

Usually, I associate Christmas with things like hot wassail, sleeplessness and family-time. Pleasant memories, conjured up by the comfort of tradition. This year, though, I can't help but feel more than a twinge of discomfort. While I sip on my wassail and give in to my mother's good-natured but never-ending deluge of family pictures, the children, siblings, and parents of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice are likely experiencing a heartbreaking holiday. I don't want to speak for them, but I can only imagine that they are suffering.

So, I could plunge into self-inflicted, so-called "white guilt," punishing myself for being born with a privilege these men never had access to. This response, however, is ultimately self-serving: to assure myself that I feel bad about what's happening so that my life can remain functionally unchanged. When I find myself swinging between feelings of outrage and despair, as I have been for months now, hungering and thirsting for true righteousness, I've learned to instead turn to the source of my hope.

Jesus was undeniably born into a violent world and a violent narrative. The very location of his birth was forcefully moved by the oppressive empire (Rome) who issued a census (for the purposes of accurate taxation) of the far-reaching empire they settled and built by force (Luke 2.1). Upon finding out that Eastern mystics came seeking another prophesied King, the paranoid and power-hungry vassal-king the Romans put in place to subdue the Jewish region of their empire, Herod, immediately slaughtered every two-year-old boy in the vicinity of Jesus' birth town, Bethlehem (Matthew 2.16). To ancient Jewish readers, this event would immediately call to mind yet another foreign oppressor from their past, Pharaoh in Egypt, who at one point threw every Hebrew boy into the Nile for fear of their growing numbers (Exodus 1.22).

Here we have a people, a tribe, an ethnic group, repeatedly subjugated by foreign power. When this power is seemingly threatened, either in truth or by perception, violent means are taken to eliminate said threat. Even Israel, the tribe chosen by God to bless the world, was not immune to the temptation of exercising such power to violent ends once they had an established kingdom and military power (see the long list of wicked Kings in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles). This is what humans do. This is the mess we create when left to our own devices. This is the "wickedness" that God saw when he looked down and "regretted that he had made human beings on the earth." (Genesis 6.6) 

But, looking down at us, in a self-inflicted disaster rooted in our original desire to have God-like power (see Genesis 3.5), God's love for his creation prevailed. God's love eclipsed His regret at what we became, and God came to us. God came through a young, scared peasant girl who courageously and thoughtfully took on the responsibility of mothering an unexpected child. God's love came through Joseph, a righteous man who preserved the sanctity of his wedding vows, but refused the temptation to publicly shame his pregnant fiance and instead submitted himself to the process of fathering a child that wasn't his own. God's love came through Jesus, who placed himself in the middle of the worst that humans could throw at him, the violence that we inevitably turn to when we seek to establish our own "kingdoms" among ourselves, rather than God's.

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There is despair in the black community of America. Cornel West would call it a sense of "nihilism," a deep and profound feeling of worthlessness. While people very quickly want to debate the particulars of each incident, the innocence of the victims, the grand jury process, the question of militarism of the police, or the fact that white men get shot by black cops and the media has nothing to say about it, I can't help but feel a similar sense of despair. All is not right in the world, and no debate, explanation, or media-blaming can ultimately make me feel better about that.

As people of the cross, the community surrounding that tragic symbol of what humans will do to an innocent life, to their very Creator come among them, we truly cannot hold ourselves distantly aloof from the recent happenings in our country. We can't hide behind explanations and arguments for one simple reason: God didn't.

Jesus had the ultimate opportunity to stay unaffected by the disaster we created, and he instead chose ultimate intimacy with our sin (Philippians 2.6-8). If you call yourself a Christian, if you seek to put your life at all under Jesus' lordship and ruling, and if you ever utter the phrase, "Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven," then I implore you to follow Jesus into the mess. Stop using whatever you are using to keep yourself at a distance. Think upon that helpless baby, born among animal feces and eventually killed as a criminal, naked and bleeding and on display for all to deride, and allow yourself to enter the brokenness surrounding us.

I promise that Jesus is already there.