By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
The phrase, “another piece of trash off the streets,” has been haunting me this Advent, leaving me unable to enjoy the beauty of this season in which the Christian world commemorates the birth of Christ. These are the words, according to Charleston, South Carolina police, that the alleged killer of 15-year-old James Means uttered while being questioned for his role in the murder of the teenager. The alleged killer, who shot Means once in the chest and then a second time in the back after Means attempted to run away, left the crime scene after the killing, had dinner, and then went visit a female friend. James Means died shortly upon arrival at the hospital on November 21, 2016, leaving behind his mother, three siblings, and many other family members and friends.
Another piece of trash off the streets…the phrase has turned over in my head, time and time again, raising so many questions: what does it mean to live in a world which views your very existence as trash that can be discarded? Is that what people really think when they see a 15-year-old black kid hanging out with his friends – trash, garbage, waste? Is it possible to kill someone, go enjoy a pleasant dinner and time with a female companion, unless you see the person you killed as trash – somehow less than human? What levels of arrogance, privilege, and hate have to be operative for someone to see himself as appointed to rid the streets of “trash?” And who gets to be the arbiter of those who deserve to live and those who, because they are deemed “trash,” can be dismissed and discarded?
I have tried listening to Christmas music, my absolutely favorite genre of music. I have trimmed the tree, decked the halls, and set the Advent calendar and wreath. I have read the Magnificat and sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But all I feel is a troubling in my soul and a disruption in my spirit. I am angry that James Means’ mother had to bury her son. I am angry when I read the news and see the normalizing of racism and white supremacy. I am angry when those who consider themselves Christians refuse to speak or act against injustice, choosing instead a “safe” position of neutrality…without recognizing that “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” (Desmond Tutu).
And as much as I love the Christmas season, as much as I cherish the celebration of the Incarnation, and as much as I just want to just be at peace during the holidays, I have decided that my wrestling with these very human, very difficult questions is also holy. Because the ancient Advent story itself raises pressing contemporary questions with which Christians must wrestle.
There are mothers, like Mary, who cradle their sons at night while fearing that their boys are destined to die. How do we minister hope in a world that disproportionately robs black and brown mothers of a lifetime with their sons?
There are those who are hungry and cannot afford shelter from the cold; those who find themselves (like Mary and Joseph) on life’s journey when the unexpected happens and there is nowhere safe for them to lay their heads. How do we make a commitment to helping the stranger, the traveler, the homeless, and the most vulnerable?
There is an edict from the halls of empire, like Herod’s, which places a value on certain lives but sentences others to a lifetime of profiling, surveillance, and tracking. How do we fight against injustice and refuse to participate with the forces, powers, and principalities that see some as inferior or marked for death?
These are the questions raised by ancient scripture and contemporary prophets. So let us not sanitize the Advent story, because when we do so, it loses its power. The twinkling lights, beautiful music, and little children dressed as angels that we use to mark Advent today are indeed beautiful. But we need, perhaps now more than ever, to wrestle with the messiness of Advent: a child already condemned to death by political decree; a fearful mother who had not volunteered for the task of bearing the Christ-child; a son born among the domestic animals in the humblest of circumstances; a mother who endures childbirth, dangerous even under the best circumstances, while traveling on the road; and a family that must wrestle with what will become of their vulnerable child.
Advent for the Christian is about expectancy: the Christ-child who was born and the Anointed One who shall return. But Advent is also about how we live in the world, how we model our lives after the One who was made flesh and who chose to live, breathe, work, love, and move among us. So there is no Advent apart from seeking justice for the mother in Flint, Michigan who is still bathing her children with bottled water. There is no Advent disconnected from the work of dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, which condemns some children to the social death of prisons while they are still toddlers. There is no Advent unless we are feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, while also fighting against the forces which allow the hungry and homeless to exist in the world’s wealthiest nation. And there can be no Advent in a world in which a 15-year-old boy is killed and his death is dismissed as “another piece of trash off the streets.” Because Advent means looking at those pictures of James Means and seeing the reflection of the image and likeness of God – not trash, not a problem, not a statistic – but a beloved son of God.
Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Director of the Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she is also an Associate Professor of Religion & Literature. She blogs at Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar and you can find her on Twitter @YNPierce.