Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 40:1-5, 9-11; PS 85: 9-14; 2 PT 3: 8-14; MK 1: 1-8.
The very mention of those names calls to mind the protests that have filled our nation's streets over the past week -- in Ferguson Missouri, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and places in between. The teenager, the father of six, and the sixth-grade child represent deeply racist and unjust social structures where criminals and thugs masquerading as law enforcement officers have implicitly been granted a license to kill with impunity.
The nation-wide demonstrations on behalf of black and brown victims of the resulting "American" police state remind us that our country is decidedly on the wrong track. Like John the Baptist in today's gospel excerpt, statements by New York's Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, President Obama, and the U.N. special rapporteur on torture call us all to what the Greeks called metanoia -- a drastic change of direction.
Ironically however that call to repentance is especially addressed to Messrs. Holder and Obama themselves. They, after all, find themselves in charge of a national and world-wide police state of which Mike Brown's Ferguson and Eric Garner's Staten Island represent merely the tip of an iceberg. The call to repentance invites all of us to apply pressure for profound systemic reform that far surpasses anything those "leaders" have in mind.
Today's liturgical readings inspire such thoughts. Listen to the prophet Isaiah as he cries out for repentance and a restructuring of reality so intense that he imagines mountains being leveled and valleys filled. The point is to smooth the way for the advent of a profoundly non-violent God in our midst. The peace-filled change Isaiah envisions is not trivial.
Listen to Jesus' mentor, John the Baptizer, as he echoes Isaiah word-for-word. (Needless to say, neither Isaiah's nor John's words have anything to do with the artificially excited anticipation of our culture's Winter Festival and its orgy of selling, buying, and conspicuous consumption -- even though "Christmas" deceptively continues to somehow associate itself with the homeless child from Nazareth.)
As a matter of fact, the cult of materialism and "Christmas cheer" couldn't be more antithetical to sincere recollection of the birth of Jesus who had more in common with Mike Brown and Eric Garner than with the white middle-class culture Christmas celebrates.
More specifically, Jesus was the embodiment of nearly everything "good Christians" (presumably) like Officers Wilson and Pantaleo (the executioners of Brown and Garner) give evidence of despising. After all, the working man from Nazareth was not only the poor son of an unwed teenage mother. He was an immigrant whose family took refuge in Egypt, the penniless friend of prostitutes and drunkards, and the prophet drummed out of his faith community as villain possessed by demons. He was the victim of torture and capital punishment who was treated as a terrorist by the reigning imperial power.
To the authorities of their day, both the Baptizer and Jesus even looked like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Both were dark-skinned, either black or brown; they were not white men. Today's gospel emphasizes how poorly John was dressed.
To repeat: during his life Jesus was impoverished, homeless, unemployed, accused of being subversive, placed on death row, and ultimately executed. As a Jew, he was considered as "other" and worthless to Roman authorities as Mike Brown was to Darren Wilson or Eric Garner to Daniel Pantaleo. He was as worthless as Abdulrahman Al-awlaki (pictured above) was to Barack Obama.
And that brings me to today's real call to repentance.
It can't merely be:
- A superficial call to "trust" -- an echo of Rodney King's "Can't we all get along?"
- A reform of police culture
- A de-militarization of police arsenals
- A mandating of special independent prosecutors to handle incidents like those in Ferguson and Staten Island
- Or even prosecution and conviction of convicted police thugs like Wilson and Pantaleo
Instead, our nation has to address the root of the problem, which is a world-wide policy of extra-judicial killings of racially-profiled Muslims and dark-skinned poor people. (That's what a "signature strike" means as executed by drone "pilots.")
Put otherwise, President Obama, Eric Holder, and their minions are as guilty as Wilson and Pantaleo. All of them place themselves above the law. They kill with impunity those "others" they consider expendable. They answer to no one. They refuse to investigate much less prosecute such crimes.