On Wednesday, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles posted a series of tweets reminding Christians to remain “awake” during the season of Advent, alert to the impending coming of Jesus Christ. Notably, he linked this imperative of wakefulness with the call to “stay woke” among young activists and media personalities.
In one of his tweets, Gomez writes:
I hear athletes, entertainers and activists using the word “woke” — as in, “We need to stay woke.” There is even a social media hashtag: #StayWoke. What they mean is that we need to be aware — of injustice in society, of how power can be abused and corrupted.
Then in a subsequent tweet he writes:
The liturgy of #Advent is filled with exhortations to stay awake — not as a protest, but to watch for the coming of God. “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes,” says Jesus.
Although it is somewhat humorous for the 65-year old archbishop to use a contemporary term such as “woke,” he raises an important theological point. Our anticipation of the “coming of God” during Advent and our celebration of Christ’s Incarnation on Christmas cannot be separated from our responsibility to become aware of and struggle against what Catholic teaching has come to call “structures of sin” that diminish human life and dignity. As Gomez writes in a later tweet, “When we are ‘awake’ to who God is, then we are ‘awake’ to who we are — and how precious every life is.”
The term “woke” first emerged in the African-American community in the mid-twentieth century, and the use of the phrase “stay woke” to describe awareness of social injustice became widespread around 2012. By 2014 the phrase had become increasingly well-known through its association with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The call to “stay woke” is powerful because it suggests that most of us sleepwalk through life, unaware of the structural forces that shape us for good or ill, or perhaps that we exist in a dream state that hides these injustices from view. Being aware of social injustice requires effort and vigilance. The term also ought to resonate with Catholic theologians, as well, because of its similarities to the term “conscientization” first developed by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and used by Latin American liberation theologians to describe the process by which the poor come to understand their own oppression.
As Gomez’s tweets show, the theme of remaining awake in expectation of the Kingdom of God is also prevalent in the New Testament. Gomez cites Jesus’ parable of the servants who await their master’s return from a wedding (Lk. 12:35-40). Jesus also tells the parable of ten bridesmaids, five of whom forget to bring oil for their lamps and who are therefore unprepared when the bridegroom comes. Jesus concludes the story by teaching, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt. 25:1-13). In a different context, Paul writes to the Ephesians, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Eph. 5:14). Here Paul associates sleep with the darkness of immorality and wakefulness with the light of new life in Christ.
Gomez’s tweets cleverly link this biblical theme with the contemporary call to combat social injustice, but are there theological grounds for this link? In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul claims that when Christ returns, it will be when “he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power” and “he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24-25). He adds that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for he subjected everything under his feet” (15:26-27). Here Paul links Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and conquest over death with the subjection of all the sovereignties, authorities, and powers that rule over this world (see also Eph. 1:20-21). The sovereignties, authorities, and powers are not human rulers (see Eph. 6:12), but rather the spiritual realities that govern our lives in this world, perhaps what we mean by structures of sin.
Therefore, our anticipation of Christ’s coming is not just an expectation of spiritual transformation and new life, but also an expectation that the structures of domination and death of this world will be defeated. To “stay woke,” then, means that we are able to recognize the power that these structures have over our lives, but also the confident hope that they, like death, will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.