Eric Garner and the Sunday of the Prophets


Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. -Collect for the second Sunday of Advent

 The second Sunday of Advent often receives the title “The Sunday of the prophets.”The collect[1] for this day draws our attention to the Old Testament messengers who carried their “thus saith the Lord” throughout Judah and Israel. The prophet’s message of repentance stood as a testimony to God’s vision for the just society.  But what exactly did the prophets tell Israel to repent of? It is easy to focus on their condemnation of personal sin: lust, dishonesty, idolatry, gluttony. There is a certain comfort in being rebuked for these sins. The church, at least for now, still recognizes these things as wrong. The pastor who speaks the truth plainly gets to feel prophetic; the congregation gets castigated for not doing what we know we ought to do. Everybody wins.

A quick glimpse at what the prophets said complicates things.

Yes, the prophets had plenty to say about personal sin. Right along side these rebukes we find statements about what we might call structural sin. Corruption at the highest levels of Israelite society had an adverse impact on those with no advocate:

Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:23)

For some in Israel justice was a cruel mistress. The court system did not work for them. This was sin and it was institutionalized. The prophetic rebuke of personal sin still serves as a relevant word. Should not the prophetic rebuke of institutional sin inform the public witness of the church?

For those Christians concerned with the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others, our claim is both theological and historical. Theologically, we believe that the same God who tells us to repent of our personal sins also calls us to bear witness to structural sins that oppress the poor. It also commands us to call upon those Christians who allow this injustice to flourish to repent. Historically, these structural sins have manifested themselves in the United States in the form of undue hostility toward people of color. This is not a totalizing claim. Every violent encounter is not the result of racism. However, it would require a denial of our past and present to claim that African-American concerns are without foundation.

Listening to the voice of the prophets means that we must embrace the whole of their message. It would also mean listening to Jesus. He is the just and true ruler to whom the prophets looked:

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. (Isaiah 11:3–4)

The Anglican tradition has power to transform us when we use the liturgical year to remember the parts of scripture that we would rather ignore. It becomes a form of escapism when we use it domesticate the scriptures and the God who has calls us out of darkness and into his marvelous light.

[1] Collect is the fancy Anglican word for prayer.

Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

One thought on “Eric Garner and the Sunday of the Prophets

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.