Eric Garner and the Holiest of Nights

Today (Dec. 4, 2014) a Staten Island grand jury found no reasonable evidence to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a police office, for the death of Eric Garner, a resident of NYC. Pantaleo is shown on camera (the recorder of which was indicted, for the record) putting Eric in a chokehold – which is expressly prohibited by the New York City Police Department which hired and trained him. As Eric was brought to the ground, with his hands raised in surrender, he managed to shout, “I can’t breathe,” before passing out and eventually dying. You can read an overview of the story here and I encourage you to watch the video itself (Eric is still alive at the end of this video, but I must stress that it is highly charged).

If I sound shaded, it’s because I am. I am tired of people living in a system where we are openly allowed to hate each other and commit acts of violence on member’s of God’s people. I am tired of seeing people I know justify death and brokenness. I do not care what this man was doing, what the statistics are on racialized crime, or what the officer intended. I care that this man was created in the image of God and that we allowed someone else to murder him. To kill God’s own. To continue sinning without repentance. To forsake God’s justice.

As a fellow asthmatic, one who recently has also been choked, I empathize with Eric. I know the feeling of losing air, and the panic of knowing when the pressure is off of your throat you still might not be able to suck in oxygen. I know the immediate jump in heart rate. I know the wide-eyed adrenaline rush, coursing so deep it hurts down to the bones. I do not know police brutality. I do not know racial discrimination. But I know injustice when I see it.

As I sat on my bed, reading about the responses to Eric’s murder and Daniel’s lack of indictment (though, the corner listed Eric’s death as a homicide and therefore there may be further legal recourse), I felt overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness about the world. For how long have we hated and killed each other? For how long will we? How many must die before we even admit there is a problem ingrained in each of us? As I read and cried for this gross picture of sin, a sidebar caught my eye.

Patti Smith, performing Oh Holy Night at the Vatican in 2013.

Please, please, please watch it.

Her voice, slightly wavering, solemnly marched through the lyrics, never hitting the overly happy, sentimental highs of many pop renditions. Rather, she lets the song dwell in the dark, preferring to illicit moods of long-standing weariness and broken-heartedness. The moods of a young mother, too poor for a room in the inn. The moods of a dark, cold, dreary night, where another child is born in squalor and poverty. The night where it may be just as easy to give up. The night where the bleakest of lows gives way, ever so slightly, to something that might just touch on holy.

The Christ-child is born. Not in splendor, not in peace, but in oppressive sadness. The Christ-child is born not to the rich and uncaring, but to the poor and needy. The Christ-child is born not in comfort, but the unease of living under rulers who care little for people like him. In the low, the Christ-child comes to bring a glimmer of hope that we too may one day be born again into a rejection of brokenness. The Christ-child comes first, that we too may stand up to death itself. The Christ-child comes to bring life.

The very presence of a baby, full of needs, waiting to be taught, eager to learn the ways of the world, stands up against hopelessness. A baby is the rejection of the world winning; though the world is broken beyond our fixing, a new life comes as if to say, “it is not so broken that we should give up.”

On this night, as we sit in the hopelessness that comes when we stare injustice and hate in the eyes, we must remember that the Christ-child is born. That the Christ-child lives. That the Christ-child must come again. It is for this reason that Jesus comes, that in Him we may have new life and that death should lose its sting. As we remember Eric Garner and all those who suffer violence and hatred this Advent season, we must still look for the Christ-child. Tonight is the bleakest of nights; let it be the holiest as well.

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