In my little church out here in the Missouri heartland, it's the season of Advent. We've placed the purple cloth on the communion table and on the pulpit, the Advent wreath is in place, and we've begun lighting the candles of hope, peace, joy and love.
I've seen Advent come and go each year for as long as I can remember, and as a pastor, I've now been blessed with the opportunity to journey with my congregation through this season, as well. But this Advent season is really hitting home for me, more than any other time that I can remember. As we light candles that are supposed to represent hope, peace, joy and love... I strain and struggle to see those qualities prevailing in the world around me. And as we read the words of the prophets, as we sing the Advent hymns that cry out to God with the yearning of a people who anxiously wait for their Messiah... I find myself echoing their cry time and time again, "Come, Lord Jesus. Save us."
The world waited on pins and needles to hear the decision in Ferguson -- and when that decision was announced, when the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, it was certainly a painful moment for a great many people in Ferguson and throughout our nation, if not the world as people watched and waited together. But at the same time, though there was a lot of shock and anger at the decision, the saddest part for me was seeing so many who were completely unsurprised at the announcement, who hunched their shoulders in resignation and raised their eyes to the heavens in lament. And I could understand the resignation -- I could understand the anger, as well. I know that I will never understand what it is like to be a person of color, that I have no frame of reference that will ever give me a true perspective of what the community of Ferguson has undergone in this entire situation. But I felt the same lack of surprise and what I'm sure was only a fraction of the frustration and pain that I saw on the faces of the crowds outside of the courthouse that night as I listened to the report being given.
We lit the candle of hope that Sunday. And as I preached to my congregation, as I reflected in my own personal times of prayer and devotion, I tried to both give and receive some comfort in the reminder that Advent is precisely the time in which these kinds of desires for peace, for justice, for an end to these senseless circumstances, should be voiced. In a season of deep and heartfelt longing, our prayer needs to be "Come, Lord Jesus, come."
But now we've progressed from Ferguson to Staten Island. And, yet again, I'm spending my time in reflection and prayer, working to prepare a sermon the next Sunday when we will light the candle of Peace... and this new announcement from yet another grand jury comes out. And this one does surprise me. Perhaps it shouldn't after Ferguson, but somehow this one hits like a slap in the face. Everyone who saw the video, who heard the reports from coroners, from NYPD, from just about every source speaking out on the incident. Nearly everyone was pretty clear: Eric Garner's death should never have happened. The coroner ruled it a homicide. The chief of police said in no uncertain terms that choke holds were banned. There were no conflicting witness statements, as there were in Ferguson, to even give the benefit of the doubt to a police officer who had to make a snap judgment in a potentially violent and/or dangerous situation. The videos recorded by bystanders were clear -- Garner was frustrated and non-compliant, yes, but he was not aggressive. He was expressing his feeling of being harassed and demanding to be left alone. Nothing that he did in the video could or should have been taken as aggressive or threatening, and yet he was brought forcefully down to the sidewalk, surrounded by police officers, and handcuffed. And as you hear panic starting to creep into his voice as he cries again and again that he can't breathe, the officers crowd in and block the man recording the situation.
And despite all of these things -- despite an incredibly condemning witness recording that shows officers using unnecessary force against a man and making no effort to assist him when he begins crying out that he can't breathe -- despite all these things, a grand jury decides that there isn't even any basis on which to bring any charges on the police officer(s) involved.
There is no peace in that decision. And I don't believe there is justice in it, either. And this is only the second in an ever growing list of so many situations that keep coming to light in which severe injustices are being committed in the name of the law.
People are crying out -- and it's not the familiar strains of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" ringing in the rafters of church buildings as people prepare themselves for yet another cheery holiday season. It's cries of "Hands Up, Don't Shoot." It's cries of "I Can't Breathe." It's cries of "No more." It's cries for justice, for understanding, for equality that we still haven't attained as Americans, and the question hanging in the background of whether we ever truly will. It's the cry (or hashtag) that #blacklivesmatter.
Black lives matter. Absolutely, black lives matter. But in this season of Advent, our challenge should be to take that and extend the paradigm. Because I think there's a deeper disease running through us as a people -- and the rampant racism and injustice in these last several months? That's a horrible symptom of an even greater problem. Black lives matter, yes -- but pushing past the hashtag, we have to understand not just that black lives matter, but that ALL lives matter. All. Lives. Matter. Because people matter.
All lives matter. People matter. And that's the point of Advent and Christmas in the first place. In this season, we remember that we matter so much to God that God became one of us and dwelt among us. And out of that incarnation, we celebrate that all people are given the same opportunity, the same place at the table, the same love of God made flesh. And that gives each and every one of us incredible worth.
We're not just black or white. We're not just nationalities, ethnicities, genders, or orientations. We're not just statistics on a page, customer ID #'s, or demographics to whom advertisements need to be targeted. We're not just political parties or their ideologies, nor are we just religious denominations and their theologies. We are human beings. We are unique, individual lives, and each of us matters.
And until we understand that, until we let that reality shift our entire worldview, until we can look at another person and see them as just that: another person, another life that matters, another human being created and loved by God... then things like Ferguson will just keep happening.