taking the words of Jesus seriously

In this current season of Advent, I find myself particularly struck by the profundity and audacity of hope—that we are called to be present to the depths and darkness that surround us, all the while practicing eager anticipation for the light that is to come. In hope’s reality, we celebrate the joy and promise embedded in Christ’s birth while knowing our work on earth is far from over. 

I think about the overwhelming injustices that have happened in the past year alone: the lives that were taken from unnecessary gun violence and police brutality, the souls we’ve lost from a persistent and divisive pandemic, the people we’ve locked up or executed in the name of “justice.”

My heart is both weary and hopeful as I cling to the familiar lyrics of O Holy Night, beckoning us all to a better Gospel than we often see enacted these days.

Truly He taught us to love one another 

His law is love and His gospel is peace 

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother 

And in His name all oppression shall cease 

And in Jesus’ name, all oppression shall cease. In this Christmas season, we celebrate the miracle that Christ is coming, that he has come; and yet we know there is still much redemptive work to do to carry out Christ’s vision for love, justice, and true peace. 

I believe that, in order for us to experience true peace, justice, or love, we must begin by telling the truth. Too often, we have numbed the aches and groans of the world in a false peace that seeks to resolve and explain away our neighbor’s pain (or worse yet, to blame them for it). Again and again, we refuse to examine the rotten roots of a withered tree, preferring instead to label the fruit a ‘bad apple’ and blame it for its own worms. 

In the Introduction of Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row, a collection of first-person stories written by men on America’s death row, Editor Lynden Harris challenges us to examine the roots of one such rotten tree, America’s criminal justice system: 

No other society has imprisoned as many of its own as we do here in the United States. What we hide in the dark obscurity of prisons and jails are real people, shredded by mental illness, violence, abuse, and poverty. As one young man told me, “Poverty and prison go together like Kool-aid and sugar. Without sugar, you got no Kool-Aid. Without poverty, you got no prison.” 

READ: The New War on Christmas

Ms. Harris goes on to discuss our racially and economically targeted prison system through the lens of “American apartheid,” and presents the need for our own truth telling process, much like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in South Africa to address the long, gaping wounds of Apartheid. She writes:

Perhaps we would benefit from our own Truth and Reconciliation process. Who needs to tell the truth? Who needs to listen? Surely we all do. We need to tell the truth about who it is we incarcerate. We need to tell the truth about why we think it’s OK. Too often, what we accept as truth is simply some form of It must be because it is. Stay within that circular world, and those statements hold up. You can’t see the river till you climb onto the banks. But clamber up, and suddenly the river is defined. It stands out against a larger landscape of possibility. 

Landscapes and riverbanks: the imagery of fertile ground. Growth, life, and healthy planting abound, but only if we’re willing to tell the truth about the systems in which we so often ignore the soil. This Advent season, I am finding deep meaning in reading books like Right Here, Right Now, reminding me of the work that is still to be done, as we live in the “Here and Not Yet” of it all. 

During this miraculous season, may we remember the celebration of Christ’s birth, rejoicing that he came to bring a law of love and a gospel of peace for all humanity. And may that spur us on to dream of a larger landscape of possibility for our siblings currently tangled up in the rotten roots of suffocating systems.

About The Author


Anna Kelly is an artist and activist based in Durham, NC. She is the Managing Director for Hidden Voices, an arts collective that works with underrepresented communities to create performance pieces, art exhibits, and media that explore difficult social issues. Right Here, Right Now: Life Stories from America’s Death Row is part of the Hidden Voices project Serving Life: ReVisioning Justice. To learn more about Hidden Voices and Right Here, Right Now, please visit www.hiddenvoices.org or connect with us on social media (@hiddenvoicesus).

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