I want to write about light and hope and sparkly Christmas ornaments, but that’s difficult because the first anniversary of my brother’s death is looming, plus America’s legal system seems to be OK with black people being murdered in the streets. These two facts may seem unrelated to you, but they’ve become intertwined in my mind.
Together they form a tangled mental mess that causes me to walk around the house kicking crap on the floor and mumbling “God damn it, God damn it.” Let the record show, this is highly unusual (my mumbled curses, not the crap on the floor).
I’ve been in a rage lately. I’m angry that my brother died, angry at the way he died, and angry at injustice in the world. I’m angry at God because I strongly disapprove of the way the world works at times. I’m angry at evil and abhor the dark stains on the human soul. I’m angry at death and mental illness.
In theory, my anger fits nicely into Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving, but I’m angry at her, too, for suggesting that anger can be neatly boxed up and understood. Grief does not progress in an A, then B, then C fashion.
Fear of the Dark
My anger stems from the unwelcome fact that I am powerless over the darkness in the world. In the scheme of things, I can do nothing about illness and death and injustice. I can flail and rant and wave protest signs and stamp my feet and cry and spew angry blogs. I can kick crap around the floor. But in the end, I must accept being powerless and relinquish my treasured illusion of control if I’m to avoid depression and anxiety and find a measure of peace in this life.
Being powerless makes me afraid. My lack of control over my brother’s dreadful death and the fact that African-American men and boys are dying at the hands of authorities in (at best) questionable circumstances makes me feel unsafe.
Yes, I could ignore or deny the injustice against blacks — being white, I don’t live in fear for my own family’s safety. Still, when they announced the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to charge the officer who strangled Eric Garner, let alone the ones who stood around and watched Eric expire, I felt exactly the way I did on September 11, 2001. And in 2000 when the Supreme Court told the state of Florida to simply stop counting votes in the presidential election. Didn’t we want to know who got the most votes? Apparently we did not.
The world is not supposed to work this way. Massive skyscrapers aren’t supposed to crumble. The Supreme Court isn’t supposed to be political. Officers of the law aren’t supposed to strangle people.
Wrong. I keep rediscovering that the people and systems that I thought had our backs do not. There are no failsafes; our systems are not just; the world is not fair.
Seeing the Light
Despite my best efforts at denial, I think I’m finally coming to accept that this is how the world is.
When my brother died, I had to accept that I can’t escape the ugliness and darkness in the world. Nor should I try. As a praying person, I feel some responsibility to be a witness to injustice and pain and to wail with the world. To stand with the oppressed the way Jesus always stood with the oppressed. To ask questions. He didn’t throw stones at an angry mob of oppressors, instead he stood with a woman about to be stoned and said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” The mob went away.
You see, Jesus brought God’s light into the darkness. He didn’t respond out of fear, he responded out of love and compassion. That’s why followers of Jesus celebrate Christmas, because we believe there is hope in the darkness. We’re still following that star.
Of course a society that’s based on consumerism (greed) and power (injustice is inevitable) has trouble seeing this light. The light can’t be measured by scientists or owned by corporations or controlled by fear-mongering politicians or manipulated by statisticians. For many people these days, the light simply does not compute.
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it,” wrote Jesus’s friend John.
Living in the Light
Don’t ask me why (it’s another part of God’s plan that seems crazy to me) but one of the best ways to see God’s light in the world is through individuals — flawed and broken people. Every one of us carries God’s light, but we aren’t required to tend it. We can choose the darkness instead.
According to the Bible, the result of focusing on the light instead of the darkness is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” That’s why I pray and meditate, because I want all that. I want to connect with the light and the love. I’ll probably always struggle to accept the darkness along with the light. Last month, I gave an entire sermon about finding hope in grief and loss, yet here I am again. Fear is a powerful motivator. But perfect love drives out fear.
So as I enter Christmas week — and the week that marks my brother’s death — I’m dealing with anger. That’s OK. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, and he trashed the tables of the powerful oppressors who were ripping off the poor in Jerusalem. He got sad and he got mad. And I imagine God is pretty pissed about the way the world is today, too.
Civil rights leader Baynard Rustin said, “Let us be enraged about injustice, but let us not be destroyed by it.” Easier said than done, but a worthy goal.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I pray for you a light and love-filled holiday season.