The following is a devotional published in "Resipiscence: A Lenten Devotional for Dismantling White Supremacy" (ed. Vahisha Hasan and Nichola Torbett, 2018). You can purchase a copy of the full devotional here.
"Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God" (John 3:14-21, NIV).
In my church tradition, John 3:16 was one of the first verses the church instructed us to memorize. We were taught to hone in on the clarifier of “belief” in the verse, lest we start to think that “everyone” actually mattered to God outside of their confessions of faith. The church did not teach me to imagine Jesus’ words to be a careful response to Nicodemus, a privileged male religious leader. It was easy to ignore the context of Jesus’ statement, because 3:16 had been established as the main point of the discourse. However, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus was just as much about the power of envisioning a new creation, as it was about the power of one’s beliefs. John’s gospel begins with the words from Genesis’ creation narrative, “In the beginning...” (Jn. 1:1). Jesus makes new creation even more personal when he says to Nicodemus, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The new creation, like the original creation, will have a light. Those reborn with new eyes can see it. According to John, God gave his son, and his son was the light. The son of light was God’s judgment on the wicked because it revealed the sins they needed to keep hidden. If verse 16 is important for anything, it is for the detail that all of this was an act of God’s love. As much as eternal life is God’s gift of love, so is the shining of the light that exposes previously hidden sins.
The war on black and brown bodies has been waged in our country since the first settlers landed on these shores. From the genocide of native peoples and the institution of slavery, to the modern state of police violence and the prison industrial complex, there has never been a ceasefire. For those pushed into the darkness by the wickedness of white supremacy, there has never been any doubts of this fact. Yet, for those of us privileged enough to sit in the warm glow of whiteness and American exceptionalism, doubts and even denial abound. Sadly, the denial is astounding, when given the many times the light of God’s love and justice has revealed it, but the privilege and exceptionalism was warmer and more comfortable for us. This is why God’s actions of revelation are both loving and incriminating.
The light of God’s love is still shining. If there is any hope of experiencing the kind of world John imagined Jesus came to create, then we need to be born with new eyes to see what it shows us. For many of us, we saw it first when it shined on the George Zimmerman 911 call as he stalked, provoked, and murdered Trayvon Martin. For others, it took the images of Michael Brown’s body lying dead in the streets. Then there was Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Magdiel Sanchez, Philando Castile, and the list goes on. God’s light cannot help but shine, and it shines most on things the privileged least like to see.
Wherever wicked powerful individuals exploit the weak, the light is there. Politics and fame cannot hide it. We have seen it shine on archived recordings where our own President confessed to sexual assault and called it “locker-room banter.” The rich in Hollywood have fallen under its gaze and as the spotlight expanded, an army of women was found, no longer in the darkness of guilt shame, but in the light rejoicing and lamenting with the words #MeToo.
Make no mistake; John wants us to believe that God loved us and sent Jesus to save us. Much to Nicodemus’ disappointment, though, God does not do that in secret as the privileged prefer. Only in the liberty and justice of God’s revelation can we enter into God’s new creation and live an eternal kind of life. No more can we try to find God under the cover of night, or by the warmth of our own privilege. No more can we hide behind our fears, and work to preserve our standing and reputation. For as we do, we creep further and further into the long night of wickedness. We deceive ourselves into thinking the revelation of God’s love will not shine our way. But it will shine, and our complicity in the violence against the children of God will be revealed. Exposure is God’s love language.