As many shop for Christmas presents in the malls of America, still many others have taken to the streets all over this nation in protest to the rash of police killings of African Americans under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter. This jarring juxtaposition of realities is best captured by the photograph from Ferguson of St. Louis police officers in riot gear standing below a “Seasons Greetings” banner bedecked with Christmas lights. The seasonal themes of “peace and good will” and “glad tidings to all men” have been rendered meaningless in the face of such fascistic state-sponsored intimidation as Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of their Savior, Jesus the Christ.
But contrary to the sermons that are being preached during this Advent season, the first Christmas was not as “calm and bright” as the Christmas carol suggests. As today, that first Christmas pageant was indeed a pageant of protest. In fact, this present juxtaposition of realities was the same stark contrast faced by the people to whom Christ was born. The Hebrew people lived under fear of death at the hands of a militarized state. The level of repression being visited upon Black America at this very hour in the United States is strikingly similar in spirit and expression to what the people of Galilee felt and knew when Jesus was born.
The collective desire of the Hebrew people for freedom from Imperial Rome was best expressed by none other than the mother of Christ, herself. Liturgically referred to as the Magnificat, Mary’s song begins as a prayer of thanks but soon becomes a manifesto against the powerful and the rich. In it she declares, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” as recorded near the conclusion of the first chapter of Luke’s gospel.
Whatever Christians today believe the meaning of Messiah to be, it was clear to both the Romans and the Hebrews then that it meant liberation from Roman oppression. The Messianic message of “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” was clearly at political odds with an empire that perceived its ruler – Caesar – to be the Son of God. In defiance to Rome’s imperial theology the “humble” and “hungry” members of Jesus’ community yearned for the day when “God With Us” would come.
Jesus was weened on the revolutionary wisdom of this woman who desired her people’s liberation from the yoke of Roman oppression. This same woman would hide her son from the rulers of the region who sought to prevent the rise of the Messiah and thus deemed Mary’s boy and his childhood compatriots a threat. As recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, the “Massacre of Innocents” strikes a nerve that sits at the heart of the movement that shouts to this empire “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”
The manger scenes that decorate the doorsteps of churches across the country offer a sanitized version of the social and political environment that surrounded the Christ-child. Absent the funk and fury of what those days were like for the marginalized, the ones for whom there was no room in the system. The Jewish historian Josephus recounts the story of Judas the Galilean who led a tax revolt among the community Jesus grew up in which culminated in the crucifixion of two thousand Hebrews. These events occurred within the first decade of Jesus’ life. Christ was no stranger to state-sanctioned terrorism. The hanged bodies of his fellow Hebrews was a constant presence for him and his followers. When he told them to “take up your cross and follow me,” he was not speaking of the gold-plated crosses that sit on the altar during Communion or the decorated pendants many wear around their neck. Those Galileans knew exactly what he meant and what that message conveyed in the immediacy of the horror they faced everyday. This same call to take courage in the face of death’s threat is what we are seeing today in the activism of those that have stopped traffic on highways, shut down subways and blocked police stations.
The American objective of repressing the Black community is but the modern manifestation of Herod’s objective at the time of Christ. Every other day we learn about another young Black man or woman killed by police. The state’s claim that these unarmed persons represented a threat to police can only be understood as meaning that Black existence, in itself, is a threat that warrants extermination. This genocidal idea echoes the directive within the 1968 memo from J. Edgar Hoover to his FBI agents in the field which itself is an echo of Herod’s directive to his agents in first century Palestine. Hoover called for his agents to engage in activities that sought “to prevent the rise of a Black Messiah.”
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was seen by many as messianic with its themes of hope and change. Those hopes were soon dashed upon the Plymouth Rock of American racism as gun sales skyrocketed as he was being sworn into office and militia groups grew across the nation with assassination plots brewing in the cellars of their bigoted minds.
The level of white supremacist violence has ratcheted up to lynch-era levels in the wake of Obama’s ascension to the highest political office in the most powerful nation on the planet. The brunt of the attack has been felt by working-class Black people. White racist America is taking out its frustrations on the very people they view as responsible for putting the nation’s first Black president in office. This is demonstrated in the testimony of one Joseph Paul Leonard, a white man who attacked two Black men giving food to the homeless one June morning in 2013. One of the men, Toussaint Harrison, died two day later from injuries sustained from being kicked in the face by Leonard after Leonard smashed his Chevy S-10 truck into him. While sitting in the back of the patrol car, Leonard is recorded saying, “Just because we got Obama for a president these people think they are real special.” Two Black men attacked, one executed, as they engaged in Christ-like acts of charity. This incident is symptomatic of the larger All-American assault on Black life.
The Black Messiah that Hoover feared is seen today not in one individual but in the collective call for a just America to come. This Messiah spirit that threatens the unjust rule of imperialists and false democracies can best be seen in the communal outcry #BlackLivesMatter. Naming as sacred the body and blood of a people gunned down throughout this nation is truly a revolutionary act. It is an affront to white supremacy’s fundamental theological lie of remaking God in the oppressor’s image.
During this season of Advent as Christians expectantly wait for the coming of their Savior, those born in the marginalized mangers of this society are not waiting. Like John the Baptist, they are too busy preparing the way. This generation that many wrote off as aloof and self-absorbed is Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones realized in our time. The rise of the Black Messiah is witnessed in their daring acts of love and sacrifice to #ShutItDown in the name of those that were lynched by police saying #ICantBreathe. If America is to be saved, it will be through the defiantly creative and prophetically courageous acts of this Black Messiah who comes proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter.
Ewuare X. Osayande is a political activist and author of several books including Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement. He is also editor and publisher of Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander.