Our Advent 2014 paper is now online. Be sure to read it and let us know what you think.
By Eric Garbison
While in a dank Birmingham jail cell, Martin Luther King received a letter from a group of white, mainline clergy snug in their sanctuaries. “We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized” they wrote, “But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
King was quick to reply (on toilet paper from his cell), “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly…For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ …this ‘Wait!’ has almost meant ‘Never.’ We must come and see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
“Wait” is often the language and logic of injustice.
The body of Michael Brown was left in the streets for 4 hours. What were they waiting for? And as of this writing, we are still waiting to see if St. Louis County Grand Jury or the Federal Government will indict the officer. Will the case be tried? If so, will it be moved out of the county to an impartial court room? Folks in Ferguson and the African American Community more broadly are tired of waiting for the end of racial profiling and fear of abuses by uniformed power.
They’ve just built a new Taco Bell in our neighborhood, a fourth auto parts store, and a new McDonalds is almost completed. Resources can be had for a Sprint Center, Kauffman Center, the Power and Light District, even for large centralized soup kitchen to feed hundreds of meals daily (and redirect the homeless away the downtown). But Mike, Rick, Sandy and others, who all have regular incomes, are homeless, waiting for safe affordable housing; housing that is dignified is hard to get at $640 a month. When will affordable housing be built? And not just in Kansas City neighborhoods but in neighborhoods but also in Liberty and Lee Summit, Olathe and Leawood.
Greg Boertje-Obed is waiting in a Ft. Leavenworth prison cell. He, Sr. Megan Rice and Mike Wallie made their way into the heart of the nuclear weapons at Oakridge TN, the “Fort Knox of uranium.” As they waited there for the guards to come, they hammered on the walls of one of the greatest idols of our time. “Repent! God’s kingdom is at hand!” was burned into the handle of their small sledge hammer. These prophets are tired of waiting. Would their symbolic action channel the end for which we wait? (Their work was a confession of sin, of our own complicity in the illegal, immoral, yes, sinful us of nuclear weapons; and of our practical atheism—that we trust more in our technology than in the Creator of the Universe.) Unless his appeal is successful, Greg will be behind bars for four more years, waiting for justice.
One of the first Advent passages of this year comes from 2 Peter 3:8-13 “The Lord isn’t slow to keep the Lord’s promise as some think of slowness…” It seems that, in the face of challenges and persecution, the first century Christians were getting impatient. The promise was “new heaven AND a new earth where justice is at home.” And they were anxious for it to become a reality. We too are weary as we wait for a new heaven AND new earth where nuclear weapons have been abolished, where safe affordable housing is available to the poor as well as the non-poor, where young black men will not only be safe and equal, but loved and welcomed for who they are and what they bring…a world where “justice is at home.”
I wonder how the early Christians heard this. Did it frustrate or disappoint them? Or perhaps it sounded unjust? There is painful irony in reading these in a world where waiting is the polite speech of injustice.
We are not only frustrated by the Powers-That-Be, we are not only frustrated with our own collusion, we even get upset with God. The psalmist knew this complaint, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (13:1-2)
We have no choice but to be honest about this. (Doesn’t God prefer our honesty over piety?) We must wonder if Advent, the “season of waiting” is outmoded church language meant to keep us hanging on? Like the Market’s consumption of Christmas, is it meant to pacify us? Is it simply another form of dodging justice? Like the white clergy writing King, how often have we in the church masked our foot-dragging. How often have we been custodians maintaining the status quo with a message of “Wait!”?
Perhaps there is another angle to this? Doug Harink suggests another way to understand what feels like God lingering needlessly: “The present time is never simply dead time or metered time, as a historicist would have it; it is time pregnant with the patience of God…We live not in a time of empty waiting. We live in the fullness of time of God’s gracious patience—a time given to us in which to repent. This is the time for the church…and the whole world… to wake up to the reality of the destruction that we bring upon ourselves, even seek out, through our sin and submission to the rebellious powers…”
Christ’s birth reminds us that Christian waiting is not stagnant; it is pregnant. Time is pregnant with patience as Mary is pregnant with God’s Hope Incarnate. Mary must see her pregnancy through the discomfort, the social shame, the poverty, the pain. In all the limits of her youthfulness, low status and human body, Mary must wait. She must wait through her social and personal reality, not bypass it. Likewise, God will not beam Jesus down instantly from the heavens. Like Mary who trusts that God, “has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,” (Luke 1:46-55) we too must trust that God’s favor rests on us. God will use our smallness for divine change. Faith is not having all the facts or answers but trusting in spite of what on the surface looks hopeless.
If this is true, authentic waiting will not only contain the joy of the expectation, but also the heaviness of the child, the discomfort of a full pregnancy, the anxiety of responsibility, the fear of the unknown, the anger of deferred hope—we must never be comfortable in our waiting.
And there is another twist: According to this early Christian, we deceive ourselves if we think it is largely we who are waiting! “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise as some think of slowness,” we read, “but God is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” Are we not testing God’s patience as well? If God is exercising extreme patience toward us, mercy and not indifference or impotence is the reason for the delay. If we believe in human freedom and in the call to justice, we must affirm human agency for problems and solutions alike.
So, if God is waiting on us, the author follows up, “What sort of people ought we to be? We must live holy and godly lives, waiting for AND hastening the coming day of God.” It is never waiting alone; it is always “waiting, and…” For the author the time of “waiting” is simultaneously the time of “hastening” its arrival by “leading lives of holiness and godliness.”
This is why a life of nonviolence must be an life committed to prayer; and a life of prayer is shallow piety without active nonviolence, especially in a world of Racism, on the brink of mutual assured destruction and growing homelessness. Waiting and hastening…they are one posture.