This week, we began the season of Advent, the four weeks in the liturgical calendar in which we wait in joyous hope for the incarnation, the moment in which God upends history by taking on human form through the birth of Christ. In this frenetic season, an increasing number of us are coping with loneliness or the loss of loved ones amid a pandemic. This year, we are in desperate need of Advent.
In our Advent devotion at Sojourners this week, my colleague Rose Marie Berger reminded us that Advent is a season in which the paradox of our faith is on full display: The already-but-not-yet takes center stage. Christians believe that God’s reign of righteousness, steadfast love, peace, and justice is not just a promise relegated to the future. Instead, we see glimpses of that heaven in the here and now, even as we face the realities of suffering and grief all around us. This means that Christ’s birth in Bethlehem makes it possible for us to co-labor with God in yanking pieces of heaven and bringing them closer to Earth. And while that heavenly future won't be fully realized until Christ’s return, Christ’s birth reminds us that it has been promised, and through the resurrection, we know that ultimately sin and injustice never have the last word.
We enter this Advent season with ample signs of the already-but-not-yet: Last week, while many in the United States were sharing a meal with family for the first time in nearly two years, we learned about the omicron variant, a new strain of COVID-19 that may be more transmissible and more resistant to vaccines. We wait with hope that this variant is less dangerous than health officials fear. In the political sphere, we celebrate the bipartisan passage of the infrastructure bill, even as Congress continues to be embroiled in a race against time to pass the Build Back Better package, which we have argued would be the most pro-family legislation in a generation. We wait with hope for strong leadership that works for the common good. While the recent climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, resulted in new pledges to address some of the worst drivers of climate change, we’re still on track to see a cataclysmic 2.4 degree Celsius rise in global temperature by 2030. We wait in hope for a dramatic shift in our collective worldview on climate solutions.
Advent hope is arguably most necessary in the context of our justice system, particularly after last month’s series of legal decisions that illuminated the not-yet realities of white supremacy and racial injustice — even as we saw glimpses of accountability.
I saw hope two weeks ago in the clemency granted to Julius Jones in Oklahoma, sparing him from execution for a crime for which the evidence strongly suggested he was wrongfully convicted. And yet, Gov. Kevin Sitt granted that clemency hours before Jones was scheduled to be killed by the state; Jones learned he was not going to die after he ate what he thought was his last meal. The joy so many of us felt was tempered by the cruelty — and by the fact that the governor only reduced Jones’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
I saw hope — and collective relief —last week as Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging unarmed through their neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga., in February 2020. And yet, I lament the injustice that it took a leaked video going viral for the local prosecutors to bring the case forward. As a jogger myself, I can still feel the visceral shock and pain from watching the video of what felt like a modern-day lynching. Arbery’s murder became one of the first teachable moments for my sons, then 6 and 8 years old, as the three of us participated in a solidarity run to honor Arbery’s life. Given our nation’s abysmal track record on racial justice, as the trial wrapped up, I feared that the mostly white jury would acquit the three killers — that muscle memory a sign that we live in the not-yet.
Even as the trial of Arbery’s killers gained significant national attention, another case in Georgia ended in a mistrial while garnering almost no attention outside of the region. Three white police officers were on trial for the murder of 58-year-old Eurie Martin — a Black man the defendants tased 15 times and pinned to the ground until he died. Martin’s death was also captured on camera, there was no delay in charging his killers with murder like after Arbery’s murder, and the jury was evenly divided by race. And yet, the case resulted in a mistrial. Had the officer been convicted, Martin’s legal counsel said it would have been the first time in Georgia's history that a white police officer was held accountable for the death of a Black man.
The outcome in the Martin case — and in the much more high-profile not-guilty verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial earlier in November — displays the brokenness of our justice system: who it is still largely designed to protect versus who it is still designed to punish, who is presumed innocent and who is presumed guilty, and the ongoing combustible cocktail of stand your ground laws, open carry laws, and citizen’s arrest laws that so often encourage vigilantism and protect racial violence under the pretense of self-defense. The justice system remains deeply rooted in the not-yet.
For a glimpse of hope, we can look to the relentless activism that we have seen since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, and some of the changes that activism has produced. A groundswell of public outrage and pressure played a decisive role in securing greater accountability for Arbery’s death and in saving Jones’s life. The Brennan Center reported in May 2021 that in the year since Floyd’s death, 25 states and the District of Columbia enacted one or more statewide policing reforms related to the circumstances of Floyd’s killing, including creating use-of-force guidelines; requiring a duty for officers to report, intervene in, or render medical aid in cases of other officers using excessive or illegal force; and creating policies related to law enforcement misconduct reporting and decertification. The same report noted that there have been at least 18 ballot initiatives strengthening law enforcement oversight in cities across the United States, from Kyle, Texas, to Columbus, Ohio. The city of Austin added a “mental health services” option to its 911 menu, dispatching mental health clinicians rather than police officers when there is no apparent threat of violence; so far in 2021, the new option has diverted nearly 3,600 emergency calls away from police response. These changes represent just the tip of the iceberg of what will be required to truly transform our policing and justice system and guarantee equal justice under the law.
Amid all of the not-yet in our politics and our communities, I continue to find resilient hope in the prophet Isaiah’s assurance: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6 NIV). Advent hope reminds us that the battles that lie ahead to transform our justice system are not ours alone to fight because, ultimately, “the government will be upon Christ’s shoulders.” It reminds us of the ongoing personal and collective journey of transformation as we seek, know, and follow Jesus. Yes, we must press on by leaning into the already even as we face head on the not-yet. We must tap into the limitless well of Advent hope. A hope that liberates. A hope that humanizes. A hope that empowers. A hope that can transform even the most intractable and seemingly invincible not yets into the promise of an already.