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Advent 2: Peace

Juan Gutierrez The Holy Family
Juan Gutierrez, The Holy Family, 1680 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Last week was the second week of Advent, so throughout the week we lit the candle of peace alongside the candle of hope. This second candle is also the candle of the holy family.

With hope and the prophets, the connection is clear. But what about peace and the holy family? If anything, the coming of Jesus disrupted their peace: the peace of Mary’s life, when she accepts her supernatural pregnancy and all of its possible consequences; the peace of Joseph’s life, as he learns that his betrothed will have child that is not his own; the peace of their small family, as Jesus is born at an inconvenient time and as the political consequences of bearing a king forces the young family to flee their country as refugees.

As I was thinking about peace this week, though, I began thinking about how sin manifests in broken relationships between people and how the peace that Jesus brings can heal those relationships.

Peace is not just the absence of conflict, whether neighbors ignoring each other as they carefully mow to the edge of their lawn or nations existing in a state of uneasy détente. True peace is not agreeing to disagree while silently looking down on a friend, nor is it constantly stifling rage and frustration to exchange banal pleasantries.

Instead, peace brings healing and restoration, understanding and compassion. This type of peace can weather conflict, and even exist during disagreements; this peace recognizes the dignity of others by honoring their status as beloved children of God. This peace brings unity without forcing uniformity.

This peace, the peace that Jesus promises, is the remedy for sin that disrupts our relationships with each other and with God. It’s deeper and richer and, yes, much harder to achieve than mere pleasantness or forced conformity. It’s a peace that exceeds the ability of fallen humanity, a peace available only through God.

And that brings us back to the holy family. God supernaturally restores peace between Joseph and Mary: Joseph, feeling betrayed by the woman he was to marry; Mary, surely fearful that her unwed pregnancy will erase her place in her community. But God brings them together, brings peace into their relationship, as they come together to raise the Son of God.

We see this peace in Mary and Joseph’s relationship only in small glimpses: as Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, fleeing Herod; as Mary and Joseph search, both frantic, for their 12-year-old son in Jerusalem.

Did Joseph fully believe, fully understand who his son was? We have no way of knowing for sure. But we can see the peace of God at work in his life as he builds a life with Mary, with Jesus, with the other children that arrived. A peace that restored and preserved relationships that otherwise would have fractured.

I like to think about Mary at Advent: her willingness to become the mother of God, her passionate magnificat, the way she hides all the marvels and ponders them in her heart. But Joseph, too, shows a willingness to let God transform his life and rebuild what seemed to be destroyed when he learned that Mary was pregnant with a child not his own.

Peace will look different in each of our lives, as each of us has relationships broken and strained in different ways and each of us tends to harm others in different ways.

But this Advent season, may the peace of Christ dwell richly in us as the body of Christ, so that we can know the power of Jesus to heal the effects of sin in our communities.

Advent 1: Hope

Single Purple Candle />
<figcaption>image via <a href=Pixnio | public domain

I’m a week behind on Advent (not to mention the last six weeks of silence on the blog). But every year, I find Advent more and more meaningful. These four Sundays leading up to Christmas invite us into the tension between the already and the not yet, darkness and light, sorrow and joy.

Christmas can often seem like a season where we have to be jolly and bright, pretending that everything is fine so we can create perfect family memories. But Advent says: there is darkness, and pain, and sorrow, and waiting, and longing. The answer has come and is coming, but the longing remains.

In the first week of Advent, we light the candle of hope, or the candle of the prophets. This candle reminds us that even in the darkness, we can see the light of Christ. It may be small, or distant, or unclear; Isaiah could not clearly see the great light for the people in darkness. But the darkness does not overcome the light. In fact, in the darkness, we come to appreciate the light more than we would in the day.

The past two weeks have been especially full of darkness for me. Nothing beyond the ordinary tragedies of human existence: a friend who lost her mother, another friend who received a serious diagnosis, my own struggle against the fog of depression. But the pain and the sorrow, the longing for things to be different, have loomed large as my Advent season begins.

I’m conditioned, by years of consumerism and Hallmark sentiments, to feel that I’m doing something wrong if I don’t enter December with joy and anticipation and a list of fun family activities. Weeping angrily over suffering isn’t precisely photogenic, nor is cocooning myself in blankets while my kids fight over Christmas music.

But the hard parts of life don’t just vanish because we put the lights on the tree and hang the stockings on the mantel. The suffering and longing remains, even if we try to bury it under tinsel and trips to see Santa.

Celebrating Advent, though, creates space for us to feel both the sorrow and the joy. Advent acknowledges the pain and suffering in our lives, and then points us to hope, to light, to life, to the child in the manger.

Advent means that we can attend a funeral one day, shedding tears and grieving with friends, and take the kids Christmas shopping the next, delighting in their excitement and joy. Advent means that we cry angry tears over the friend diagnosed with an illness and then joyful tears as the candlelight spreads during the Christmas Eve service.

Advent says: you are waiting and longing for your Savior — and behold, he is coming. Make the paths straight, the mountains and valleys level, because our hope is not in vain.

The prophets of old clung to this truth just as we still cling to it. We hope, not because all is already as it should be, but because we know the world is not yet made right. We hope because we believe in the advent of the One who will make all things new, wipe away every tear, heal every ill.

And so we light this first advent candle, the candle of hope, the candle of the prophets, with longing and joy in our hearts.

Tagged: advent | hope | suffering

Evolving Faith Conference

Allegory of Justice Punishing Injustice
Great Smoky Mountains | image via Wikipedia | public domain

I’m at the Evolving Faith Conference this weekend, hosted in the mountains of North Carolina by Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans (I met Sarah Bessey today, and I fangirled a little bit). I’m a bit burned out after hearing so many fascinating talks from fascinating people (and having fascinating conversations with a friend I don’t see often enough).

So I’m not writing much; I’m not sure I can formulate many cohesive sentences tonight. But I was struck by how the speakers, ranging from Pete Enns to Wil Gafney to Jen Hatmaker to Osheta Moore, kept returning to a theme of lament.

Lament for friendships lost, for conceptions of God lost. Lament for the pain and isolation of experiencing a deconstruction of faith. Lament for the hurt and sorrow caused by faith communities both personally and in the world through patriarchy and white supremacy.

But each speaker also affirmed that, out of this sorrow and pain and loneliness, we can find God again, even in places where we didn’t expect to find God. We can find community. We can regain, regrow a faith that is deeper, more resilient. We can rediscover hope in the peace and justice of God.

We can find hope in knowing that we are God’s beloved.

My journey of deconstruction and reconstruction hasn’t been particularly dramatic; it’s been slow, and I’ve been blessed with community along the way. I haven’t experienced a dramatic break or a traumatic expulsion from a community of faith. But even as I’ve intellectually wrestled with various doctrines, part of my heart has always been afraid to engage, afraid of God’s rejection and disappointment.

I’m working — I’ve been working for the last year — to integrate my head and my heart. And I keep hearing (as I wrote last week) the word that I am beloved.

Hearing the speakers today, I was reassured that I am beloved. That if I earnestly seek God, I will find God. That God is never disappointed in my questions and confusion and sin and even anger.

And that, right there, is the gospel. All I can hope to do is to immerse myself more and more fully into this truth.

Tagged: faith

Victimhood as Weapon and the Power of Justice

Allegory of Justice Punishing Injustice
Jean-Mark Nattier, Allegory of Justice Punishing Injustice, 1737 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Weaponizing Victimhood

A few weeks ago, around the time of the Kavanaugh hearing, I saw a post shared on Facebook. This post started by expressing sympathy for victims of sexual assault, but then began to criticize women who “weaponize their victimhood” in order to hurt others — in this case, Brett Kavanaugh. Weaponized victimhood is, according to this poster, fake or exaggerated victimhood that then creates a real victim: not the sexually assaulted woman, but the man faced with the possibility of being held accountable for his actions.1

I was struck by the idea that victimhood can be weaponized, and just a few days later I heard this idea again from Trevor Noah. In this clip, Noah describes Trump weaponizing victimhood: “He [Trump] knows how to offer victimhood to those who have the least claim to it,” allowing men to see themselves as the real victims of the #MeToo movement, rather than the women coming forward with accounts of sexual harassment and assault.

I was struck by the way that, despite their deep differences, the two positions both emphasize the power of victimhood.

This emphasis on the power of victimhood shed some new light on a critique I often heard in my conservative home of so-called “victim mentality.” Those with this mentality, I was told, imagined slights in order to claim certain benefits, like restaurant patrons planting hairs in their soup to gain free meals. In this view, many women, minorities and people in poverty were scamming the system — gaining power — by portraying themselves as victims instead of doing the proper American thing and bootstrapping themselves into success.

And what is the power of these victims? Why is victimhood either coveted or denounced? After all — filers of frivolous lawsuits aside — who would want to be a victim? Who would want to be sexually assaulted or racially profiled? Who would want to be trapped in cycles of poverty?2

The power, or perceived power, of victims lies in their call for justice. To announce oneself as a victim is to demand justice: a powerful call in a nation founded on the idea of liberty and justice for all.3

The Power of Justice

I imagine that Trevor Noah, the writer of the Facebook post, and the conservative adults of my childhood would all agree that justice is important, even vital to the success of America and American democracy. But crucially, they disagree over who gets justice.

Does Christine Blasey Ford get justice, or Brett Kavanaugh? The women raising their voices in the #MeToo movement, or the (few) men who are falsely accused?

The problem with justice is, often, like the problem of fairness for my children: they are all for fairness when it benefits them, but not so much in favor of fairness when it doesn’t. We want justice when it suits us or benefits us, but not when justice’s scales might tip against us.

Take reparations, for example: there’s a compelling argument to be made that black Americans deserve recompense for centuries of slavery and Jim Crow, centuries that have prevented black Americans from accumulating wealth at anything approaching the level of white Americans. Justice, in this argument, would require not just the granting of legal equality but also financial reparations to right past injustices.

But even someone like me, who can agree with this argument in the abstract, feels uncomfortable with the thought of this justice touching my pocketbook: after all, I have an ancestor who enlisted in the Union army at the age of 16! How can it be justice for me to give my money to right a wrong that I never caused?

Claiming victimhood is asserting a right to justice. But despite our claim in the Pledge of Allegiance that America offers justice for all, most of us see some people as more deserving of justice than others. And because of our biases — conscious or not — we imagine that the people most likely to be victims, those with the greatest claim for justice, are the people most like us.

And so some of us hear the call to believe women as a call for justice, while others hear it as sanctioning injustice against men. Or some hear Black Lives Matter as denying the importance of other lives, while others hear a cry for equal protection.

Responding as Christians

So how are we, as Christians, supposed to navigate victimhood and justice in our current cultural climate? I wish I had a tidy answer for that question. But I would suggest a few principles:

First, we must remember that throughout the entirety of scripture, God is concerned with justice for the socially marginalized. Over and over in the Old Testament, prophets condemn Israel for exploiting and oppressing those with few resources and little power — the poor, the widowed, the foreigner, the orphan. Jesus embraces the marginalized in his ministry, healing and loving them no less than (and sometimes more than) the powerful in society.

This doesn’t mean that every marginalized person is a victim. But it does mean that, when people on the margins of society call for justice, Christians should pay particular attention to these calls. Especially in a society like ours where Christians often have power and privilege, we should use that to amplify calls for justice from those who may lack power or a voice.

Second, we must be cautious when we present ourselves as victims who desire justice. I want to tread carefully here: I absolutely think that Christian women should press charges against abusers and Christian minorities should report the racism that makes them feel unwelcome. But Jesus also tells us to turn the other cheek, give away our tunic as well as our cloak, walk the extra mile.

We believe that God’s justice will come, that Christ will reign on earth as in heaven. And so at times, as we await the arrival of God’s perfect justice and mercy, we might need to endure some injustice. This especially applies to those of us who have positions of privilege in society. Sometimes that injustice will simply be in our perception: fairness sometimes feels unfair when we don’t get what we want. But sometimes we may have to risk a minor injustice to right a greater one.

We believe that God hears the cries of the wronged and that God’s justice will one day arrive, tempered by mercy, but still a justice that rights all wrongs. Right now, we cannot fully reproduce God’s justice. But may we be people who work towards justice, who honor the oppressed and the injured by earnestly discerning the nature of true justice, God’s justice. May we be willing to hold people — even ourselves — to account as we seek justice.

  1. Alleged actions — but guilty or innocent, Kavanaugh’s reaction demonstrated that he simply could not accept being held accountable for any of his actions, even for what seems to have been a well-attested tendency to get blackout drunk in high school and college.

  2. I understand that many people who have experienced sexual assault or other forms of violence prefer not to call themselves victims, often using the term survivor to emphasize their own agency and not the agency taken from then by their attacker. I’m using victim in this essay to emphasize the wrong done against a person, a wrong they did not invite, a wrong that demands justice.

  3. With the caveat that “all” did not exactly mean all for nearly the first two centuries of America’s existence.

Tagged: MeToo | justice

Five Minute Friday: Who

Song of Songs
K. T. Miura, ‘The Song of Solomon’ (morocco leather and silverfoil), 1987 | image via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This post is part of the Five Minute Friday linkup. This community of bloggers writes on a one-word prompt every Friday for five minutes, then shares their post. You can read other posts from this week here and learn more about the Five Minute Friday linkup here. To comment on this piece, head over to my Facebook page.

The question that floats into my mind: who am I?

It’s a question that’s hovered for the last two years, as I decided to leave my job and, eventually, my academic career. Who was I if I wasn’t a college professor?

Many things stayed the same: I was — am — still a wife and a mother and a friend and a nerd and a baker and a person who wishes she liked beets but who really just can’t eat them.

But losing that big piece, that career piece, was difficult. And then came the guilt: as a Christian, shouldn’t I be finding my identity in Christ, not my job or my title?

And really, what in the world does it mean to find my identity in Christ? How does that work?

Slowly, though, over the last year, I’ve begun to realize what my identity is in Christ: I am beloved.

I struggle with this, because I’d rather find my identity in what I do; what I do is under my control (or at least, I can imagine that it’s under my control). Being beloved by God doesn’t depend on my achievements; it’s constant and steady and unchanging even when everything else around me shifts.

Yesterday, reading Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, I was struck by her words:

Jesus is eternally beloved by the Father. His every activity unfurls from his identity as the Beloved. He loved others, healed others, preached, taught, rebuked, and redeemed not in order to gain the Father’s approval, but out of his rooted certainty in the Father’s love.

I want that “rooted certainty in the Father’s love.” I want that to be at the core of who I am. It’s hard to let go of the idea that I have to earn that love, but if who I am is a person who earns God’s love by succeeding in some form, failure or even reformulation moves from difficult to devastating.

And so I lean into being God’s beloved, and allowing my action to flow out of my security in God’s love.

Who I am? Beloved daughter of God.

Tagged: FMF | identity

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