Come Emmanuel: On Colonialism and Advent

Advent has never meant a great deal to me. Growing up Pentecostal, we never lit candles, and even though church was a central part of my life as a pastor’s kid, I can count on one hand the amount of Christmas days we actually read the Christmas story. I love the season, love the nostalgia and baking cookies and looking at lights and so on, but connecting all of that to Jesus is always tough, though I’m not one of those people who has to go around saying, “but Jesus was born in the spring!” because I don’t think it actually matters a great deal, so much as the fact of that he was born at all. But the celebration of Advent, longing for the savior’s arrival, that’s never been a big deal to me.

As a kid, I never understood why we prayed for the Lord to come soon. I grew up in the heart of the Left Behind hype, so Jesus’ return sounded horrific to me, a time of terror and natural disasters and Purge-like anarchy,  not something to celebrate and actively pray for. And while my theological understanding of such things has definitely changed, to the point that I more subscribe to partial preterism (the idea that some of what is prophesied in the Bible, particularly Revelation, has already occurred), I do believe that we are living in a second advent season; no longer waiting for the Messiah, as ancient Israel was, but waiting for His return and a time when all creation will be redeemed and restored.

But I admit, living a relatively comfortable life, mostly happy with my needs more or less provided for, with a lovely family and good books and hot tea and summer flowers and rainy December days… I don’t find myself exactly longing for Christ’s Advent. Being honest with myself, I find myself in a lot of sympathy for 8-year-old Karly who was so freaked out at the thought of the Rapture that she’d actively pray for Jesus NOT to come back tonight. While my faith has certainly changed and matured since then, sometimes I do find myself hoping for just another day, another year, another decade, living my mostly-comfortable life. Sure, I struggle and wrestle with anxiety and depression, but what’s the alternative? Just wanting to die? That’s certainly how many Evangelics make it sound.

I just came home from a ministry trip to Uganda. It was a rewarding experience on several different levels. There is a lot of natural beauty there, a lot of fertile ground, and wonderful, joyful, spirit-filled people with a rich culture full of dancing and music. And I was incredibly convicted that we, Westerners, just saw all of that and decided, “this is ours for the exploiting”. My heart hurt a lot of the time I was there. Not because I, directly, or even necessarily my own ancestors did this, but because I still feel culpable. I still benefit from a system that was carried on the backs of slavery and colonialism. There’s a desperate desire in Uganda to keep up with the Western world, so everyone, for example, has a smartphone, but there isn’t basic infrastructure in place, like proper drainage, waste systems, or roads. Women have perfectly styled hair but children drink dirty water. It’s heartbreaking.

And it’s not because the Ugandans have done anything wrong. They are just trying to keep their heads above the water in a world that used them miserably and then tossed them away like so much rubbish piled in the streets. I felt repentant during my whole trip, because I know I’m as culpable as anyone else for the state this beautiful country is in, and found my soul very truly aching and longing to see what the country could have been, had it not been carved up for profit. I’d love to see what their architecture and technology could have been like, what their lovely countryside would be if it weren’t peppered with plantations and their people could be if not bent under the weight of poverty.


A snapshot of the Ugandan countryside between Entebbe and Kampala

But… I’ll never know. Perhaps, and I hope, that Uganda and other countries in their same situation get handed a better deal in this life. Perhaps in a few decades or so it will get a chance to become the country it should have been. I certainly pray for that. But you know what else it makes me pray for? Christ’s advent. I don’t know what “Christ’s return” necessarily looks like, because I’m not a Biblical literalist. But I know that the restoration of creation is part of it. I don’t think God calls us to cast off thwis broken world like so much trash, but to work towards the restoration of it until he redeems it fully. And what a day that will be, when the sins of white supremacy and colonialism are washed away! When places like Uganda are restored to the fullness of what God intended for them, and the scars we carved deep in this earth are finally healed!

Christianity was a religion formed out of deep oppression, and I suspect that most of its basic tenets are really only understood from that posture. It’s hard, living in relative comfort and security, to long for a redeemed world, because you’re pretty comfortable with the cards you’ve been dealt. But when you see firsthand the cost of our sinfulness, it’s a lot easier to want to pray for God healing the world. It’s a lot easier to pray for Christ’s return. So, this year, I am longing for advent, and praying, and hoping.

“O come, o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appears…” These aren’t just some words about the Hebrew exile. These are some words about us, and our longing for a savior who rights the world’s wrongs, once and for all. Captive Israel is also the United States. And it is also Uganda. It is all of us. We are all mourning in lowly exile, separated from God by our sins. But soon, the Son of God will appear.

“Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

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