Light and Salvation in 2020 Darkness

“Professor Simms, how can you keep studying racism and not get overwhelmed?” Several students have asked some version of this question during my office hours since I began teaching in the fall of 2019 at Barnard College. As a scholar and policy professional who studies and teaches about how racialized capitalism leads to vast disparities in access to resources between people (and thus grave suffering), I attract students seeking deeper understanding of racism and tools to dismantle it. “Well,” I respond, “it’s a lot to sit with, and there are no shortcuts to remedying racism. We can’t hack it or develop an app to guard against it.” (Indeed, what’s more likely is racism is encoded into algorithms, increasing the efficiency with which it’s meted out, often under the guise of overcoming racial bias. See Ruha Benjamin’s and Safiya Noble’s books for more on this topic.) Then I pause as the student and I ponder the gravity of our conversation. Eventually, I share my heart: “Christians hold the hope of Christ overcoming sin. Racism is a manifestation of human sin systematized—and sin, falling short of God’s glory, is endemic to humanity. Yet the Holy Spirit shows us how to be vessels of Jesus’s love and light now. We all have a role in making society more equitable—and that includes you and me!” At this point, the student and I most often smile, sometimes holding back tears of anguish in realizing the enormity of the work ahead, but joyful to be recommitted to fighting the good fight.

we long for both the ultimate deliverance of Christ’s return and how we might, with the Holy Spirit shepherding us, build community reflecting Christ’s love and light.

One of my favorite Psalms, Psalm 27, bookends within its opening and closing verses the profound promise fulfilled in Christ. The psalmist articulates how a vulnerable humanity can always cling to the reassurance of the power of a loving, mighty, undaunted God more than able to see us through to the other side of any valley—whether its racism, COVID-19 killing over 1.6 million people worldwide to date, or the fact that America’s 400 billionaires are expanding their wealth accumulation during the pandemic, further engraining economic patterns leading to nearly 50 million Americans living in poverty. Psalm 27’s first verse: “The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” and the last, “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord,” speak to both our limitations as humans and our infinite capacity as disciples of Jesus to be conduits of God’s justice and love at work in the world at this very moment when darkness seems all consuming. We are not called to labor in our strength; rather, we’re empowered by a God who saves us from sin, dwells within us, and guides our steps as a lamp unto [our] feet and a light unto [our] path. As R.C. Bingham, a fellow Gathering contributor, said in his December 20th sermon at GraceCity Church in Baltimore, “Peace is not passive”—we “wage” peace by stepping up to enact Christ’s job description as rendered in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to…set the oppressed free.”

I admit, I’m impatient with what seems an excruciatingly slow plodding toward truth and real reckoning with our collective sin. In this Advent season, waiting and expectation are core themes. Corey Barnes, co-pastor with Bingham and also a Gathering contributor, reminded us in his December 13th sermon that the Magi who visited Christ in the stable were outsiders, not Jews awaiting the messiah. Still, the Magi understood that the Christ child was a beacon of hope, love, and light for all humanity. They came to worship Him for who He is and praise Him for what He would accomplish—become our savior, nailing our sins to the cross, creating a path of reconciliation with God and with each other.

Remember, this same Jesus gave us the Great Commandment, to “love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.” And so we, like the Magi, Mary, and Joseph, and everyone since, “groan” (to borrow the Apostle Paul’s description), as we long for both the ultimate deliverance of Christ’s return and how we might, with the Holy Spirit shepherding us, build community reflecting Christ’s love and light.

Holy Spirit, lead us in waging peace! Each generation takes up its individual and collective crosses while trusting the Lord to equip them to bear Kingdom fruit, offering both relief from suffering and more space for joy and love in the circumstances they find themselves. Oh that it might at last be “on earth as it is in heaven”! This Christmas, with all this in mind, I join the chorus of other believers and belt from the bottom of my heart: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King”!

[Here’s a link to one of my favorite renditions featuring Ayana George. Merry Christmas!]