Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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Activism Reflection

Advent, Genocide, and the Baby in the Manger

By on December 5, 2014

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on December 5, 2014


Advent is my favorite time of year. The idea of waiting for hope to be born is irresistible and wonderful. When I was a kid, I memorized the entire Christmas story from the gospel of Luke for a Christmas event at church. Since my childhood, the words from Luke 2 have never left me. My family still asks me to quote the story each Christmas when we gather on Christmas Eve.

But this Advent, I’m not thinking about the story in Luke’s gospel; I’m stuck onMatthew’s account instead. In light of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown,Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, John Crawford, and too many others, the image of a sweet, sanitized (too often white) baby Jesus in a manger is inadequate. We need to read the story from the gospel of Matthew and remember that the baby we celebrate was nearly a victim of a genocide organized to keep the powerful in power. This Advent we must remember that the holy family had to flee to Egypt where they waited for Herod to finish killing every baby boy under two in Bethlehem.

No, this year Advent cannot be about silent night. Not when black lives don’t seem to matter on our streets. Our silence and complicity has been rightly interrupted by protesters’ loud screams for the tone deaf to listen.

If there’s an Advent song that fits this season, it is this:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18, NRSV)

This is a song of grief to help us grieve, but it is also a song that screams for us to wake up. Too often at Christmas, Jesus is born white. But this Christmas, we must recognize that Jesus was born black. If Jesus is not born black and fleeing genocide, then we have no hope for changing this world. The Jesus we celebrate during Advent was clear in his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a white Christian with privilege I do not find myself in these verses. While I have experienced discrimination because of my gender, I do not consider myself oppressed. I do not fear for my child’s life. Instead, I fear for the lives of her black and brown friends. And even as I name this truth I’m tired, too tired, of hearing white folks say this. What we white folks need this Advent is a black Jesus to save us from ourselves. A black Jesus who demands that we join in this struggle or stop calling his name at all.

Black Theologian James Cone reminds us that if Jesus is to have any meaning for us then he must be black. Jesus is black because he stands with the oppressed in their struggle. The very life of God is bound up in freedom for the oppressed. Our lives should be as well.

The church — especially white folks in the church — must realize that these deaths (and the failures to indict) are not isolated incidents, but evidence of a system that was built to privilege white bodies and police and oppress black and brown bodies. If we as Christians cannot get this, with our thick understanding of sin, and the way it spills into every inch of our lives, then we are in trouble.

Advent is a time of hope, and the hope of Advent is this: God with us came into this world to turn everything upside down. Only a Christ who fled a violent genocide can teach us how to end violence for good.

The violence against black bodies will not end with a few protests or policy changes. This is only the beginning. The struggle will be long because the entire structure of our society must be reshaped. We must work for a world where #BlackLivesMatter more than cigarillos or untaxed cigarettes. We must work for a world where black men and boys aren’t killed for holding toy guns while white men are allowed to open carry assault rifles in their local grocery story. We must work for a world where peace and justice are valued more than power, violence, and oppression.

For white folks like me who want to be part of this change, it means listening — really listening — to black folks who are speaking their stories right now. And after listening, it means following the lead of black folks who know this terrain and can teach us all how to change it. If we want to find our own salvation this Advent, then we must listen to our black friends and neighbors as if Christ himself were speaking (because he is.)

There is much work to be done to deconstruct and reconstruct this built-to-be-broken system. But that is the hope of Advent. Jesus came to completely change the world. This Advent, our call is nothing less than this impossible, hopeful task.