- Theological Education
by Lisa Sharon Harper (Luke 2:1-14, John 1: 1-14)
On election night, I hunkered down in my living room and glued my eyes open while waiting for the announcement. When talking heads announced that Hillary Clinton conceded the election to Donald Trump my body shook—literally. I could not control it. I had never experienced anything like it. A cry rose from the pit of my stomach. Then it turned into a primal scream.
When I was a little girl I used to look at the 1960s as the ideal moment to be alive in America. I imagined myself marching with Dr. King in Selma or Birmingham. I imagined myself standing in the crowd of 250,000 surrounding the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington. What I did not imagine was what it would be like to live as a black woman in, Pre-Civil Rights Act, 1963—an era where black people’s rights to live, to move freely, to eat at any lunch counter, to go to any school, and to vote were not protected under the law. I did not imagine that. I only saw the glory. I did not understand the thick oppressive weight of the darkness.
My first taste of that 1963 black experience came in Ferguson in 2014.
Clergy and faith leaders had gathered in front of the St. Louis County Prosecutor Office on a sweltering day in late August 2014. We were there to support State Senator, Jamilah Nasheed, who had gathered approximately 70,000 signatures from across the state of Missouri petitioning Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to step down and appoint a special prosecutor to defend the rights of dead teenager, Michael Brown. Brown was shot down by local officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014.
A line of white officers stood shoulder to shoulder behind yellow police tape. Their bodies blocked entrance to the Prosecutor’s office—a public building. Nasheed tried to walk the box of petitions into the public building. The officers denied this African-American State Senator entry into the public building.
When asked why they could not enter, the officer countered: “The building is closed.”
People peered down on us through glass windows from the second and third floors of this closed building.
Clergy raised their voices demanding entry and the officers smirked as if to say, “We rule here.”
At one point I stood in the crowd—hand raised to heaven—praying that God would break through when it occurred to me: This is 2014, not 1963. These words came tumbling out of my mouth, within earshot of the officer standing directly in front of me. The words did not stick. They seemed to bounce right off of him.
I thought to myself, maybe things never progressed past 1963 in Missouri. A chill climbed my spine.
I felt that same chill the night Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. This was not about a political party. It was about the person’s rhetoric, promises, and character.
Over the year and a half of Trump’s campaign I stood witness to the moments when he opened his campaign by dividing the American people down racial lines; calling Mexican’s rapists and drug dealers. Later he encouraged his crowd to beat up a black woman and several black men; promising to pay the crowd’s legal fees. He looked at the dire straits of Syrian refugees and said America should ban all Muslims from entering our nation. And he called himself the “Law and Order” president after proposing to federalize New York City’s racially oppressive Stop and Frisk policy. Finally, he was caught on tape boasting about grabbing women’s genitals and kissing women without permission.
My black women’s body shook from the core and tears streamed as Mr. Trump took the podium to declare that he had won the race to the Oval Office.
Even as tears streamed I tried to discern exactly what was causing this reaction. These were the words that rose within my soul: “I feel as though permission to flourish has been ripped from my body.”
The Obama presidency was not Utopia in any respect. Guantanamo is still open and drones became a regular weapon of war (and non-war) on Obama’s watch. America’s immigration laws were not fixed and, in fact, Obama deported more immigrants in his 8 years than any president in American history. That said, Obama also entered his presidency asking Americans to push him to do justice. He knew his hands would be tied. He was not elected to be America’s king, but rather a co-equal among three branches of government. He knew he would need a movement to push him and congress to do what was right. And when state or local arms of government violated the common good, he would use every mechanism within his means to protect the civil rights of all Americans.
The very first piece of legislation that President Obama passed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work for women. The Obama Administration intervened in Ferguson by sending the Department of Justice to examine the Ferguson police department for violations of residents’ civil rights. The President and First Lady entered the Fast for Families tent on the National Mall in late November 2013 where they listened to the stories of immigrants trapped in our broken immigration system and wept with men and women as they petitioned God to stop their suffering.
It was not Utopia, but we knew that our President had the backs of the vulnerable. On election night and every day since the world has watched Trump set the course of his presidency. One Cabinet appointment after another has sounded the trumpet announcing the coming era of white nationalism coupled with authoritarian rule; an era when the press will be undermined and the very notions of fact and truth will be questioned.
Luke begins his Gospel story “In the days of King Herod…” (Luke 1:5) In other words, in the days of a despot... In the days of a corrupt leader… In the days of a man who would kill his own family members to maintain power… In days that came six years after 2000 men were crucified in one day for attempted rebellion and 500 per day crucified after that—in those days Jesus was born!
John talks of light and darkness—a direct reference to the Hebrew story of creation—a story written down by a company of priests exiting 70 years of Babylonian enslavement and oppression.
In the Hebrew story darkness (desolation, death, and destruction) surrounded the world. The spirit of God entered the darkness and hovered over the deep (according to Babylonian worldview the deep was the very source of their oppression—it was the home of the Gods that created the Hebrews to be enslaved). Like a hen broods over her eggs God hovered over the deep, as if ready to do battle with the chaos and agony of oppression. And how did God act?
God spoke: “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3) and there was and God saw that it was good. And light cut the darkness. God placed boundaries on the darkness.
John’s gospel takes place in the same era as Luke’s—in the days of Herod. But John is an artist. He writes and thinks in images that hold meaning.
John proclaims at the start of his good news: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Yes, John. This baby we celebrate today holds the power of the same light that split the world in Genesis 1. Jesus has come to cut the darkness—to put boundaries on it, to proclaim light and life and freedom for the oppressed. Let the oppressed people of Babylon, the exploited images of God within the reach of the Roman Empire, and the vulnerable ones whose call and capacity to exercise dominion has been silenced within our nation today—let them all rejoice! Jesus has come! The overwhelming goodness of God’s very good Gospel is about to be revealed!
Bible Study Questions:
1. Every community has areas of 'darkness' in which people struggle to have their most basic needs met. Are you familiar with those areas of need in your community?
2. The Genesis creation story describes actual darkness being pierced by the light by God and we celebrate Jesus' birth as God piercing the darkness. How are these images similar and how are they different?
3. How could you be the hands and feet of God in this world, piercing the dark places in your community? What are three things you could do in the new year to be a part of making all things new?
For Further Reading:
Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel
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