Wake-up time: Let's not skip Advent this year

This article appears in the Advent 2014 feature series. View the full series.

Advent is a favorite liturgical season of mine. I have a reputation for hunkering down, avoiding all the glitz. The diminishing light helps by drawing me inward, enabling me to get in touch with deeper yearnings. The Scripture readings, especially from Isaiah, give me hope for the world in the making: swords beaten into plowshares, no more training for war, wolves being guests of lambs, feasts with rich food and choice wine for all. Great images of yearnings! 

Isaiah also reminds us that we are a people, not just individuals. “All nations shall stream toward [the highest mountain]; many peoples shall come. . . .” Particularly here in the U.S., too often we lose sight of that communal dimension of the summons, who we are and what we are to be about as a people.

Mark’s Gospel from the first Sunday of Advent calls us to be alert, to watch. To wake up, in other words. “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” demonstrators across the country chant. What a poignant call this Advent! The killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, along with its aftermath has become a wake-up call for us as a people. Be alert, wake up to what’s happening! This Advent let’s ask ourselves some serious questions about racism, about who we are as a people and get in touch with our deeper yearnings about who we want to become.

We can start by understanding that African Americans and whites view things differently. The Public Religion Research Institute conducted surveys about race, the criminal justice system and police prior to the shooting of Michael Brown and afterwards. In the weeks preceding the shooting, 29 percent of non-whites agreed that blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system. That number dropped to 16 percent immediately afterward. In contrast, the percentage of white, non-Hispanic Americans who believe blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system went from 44 percent before the shooting to 53 percent in the months after the shooting. One wonders what those percentages are following last week’s decision by the grand jury not to indict Wilson.

Being white, I knew I needed to keep uncovering my own prejudice and racism. Delving into this further, I kept reading to see what I could learn. I’m making it part of my Advent waking up.

Last summer, Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Self-Segregation: Why it’s so hard for whites to understand Ferguson.” It’s definitely worth reading. Jones includes other polls in his article which also show similar disparity in viewpoints along racial lines. Jones explains “the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.”

Shortly after the shooting, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote a column “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist” in which he concluded that the evidence shows that “young black men in America suffer from widespread racism and stereotyping, by all society – including African-Americans themselves.” After reading the skeptical responses to his column from whites, Kristof has continued to write a series of columns “When Whites Don’t Just Get It,” in an effort to keep the conversation about race going. In the fifth part of the series, posted on November 29, he calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race. All of Kristof’s columns can be accessed here.

In a column he wrote in early November for NCRonline, Alex Mikulich takes a challenging look at white denial of responsibility, the myth of white innocence and the harm it causes. It’s clear that we need to get out of our separate worlds, reach out and learn from the experiences of others. It has been hopeful seeing stories about people donating to restore businesses or paint positive images on boarded up windows. We do need these gestures of reaching out. We need to attend to our personal relationships. As the surveys show, this is an important dimension of what needs to take place.

But it’s not enough. We also need to change the systems and structures. The surveys cited in Jones’ article in The Atlantic also showed that whites tended to see the Michael Brown shooting as an isolated incident, while blacks overwhelmingly viewed it as part of a broader pattern. They experience how the systems and structures affect them. Attitudes about race are deeply imbedded in our systems. Our attitudes shape our systems, and our systems also shape us. I still wonder how this dynamic affected the events of the day Brown was killed and the grand jury decision.

Ajamu Webster of the Kansas City Chapter of the Black United Front eloquently pointed out the need to address systems at a prayer rally I attended the night after the grand jury decision. He said holding multicultural training for police officers, having conversations about race, etc. are dealing with prejudice. Racism is when prejudice and bias are combined with power. Webster called for reform of the systems: the criminal justice system, the economic system, the educational system.

This is an Advent time. Let’s be alert and listen to the wake-up calls. Let’s get in touch with our deepest desires for who we want to be as a people. Let’s ask ourselves the tough questions, reach out and learn from one another. Let’s commit to the hard work of reforming our systems. Let’s not skip over this opportunity, like so many skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

[Jan Cebula, OSF, is liaison to women religious in the United States for Global Sisters Report.]

Related: Letter from the Anti-Racism Team of the Sisters of St. Mary of the Woods, Indiana