“Why didn’t he just ask her what was going on?”

Jaela, 13, was confused. To her, the story we had been discussing just didn’t make sense.

A year before, in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, during the early hours of the morning, a young black woman named Renisha McBride loudly knocked at the home of a white man named Theodore Wafer. McBride had been in a car accident and was, people believe, looking for help. Startled by the noise, Wafer answered the door with his shotgun. Without warning, he fired a shot through the screen door, hitting McBride in the face and killing her.

“Why didn’t he just ask her what was going on?”

Jaela’s question pierced the air in the room, exposing the absurdity and the ubiquity of America’s fear of blackness. To her, responding with deadly violence without first assessing one’s own assumptions and at least trying to engage the other made no sense. It was incomprehensible.

Yet the assumption that black people are dangerous criminals who are to be feared and treated accordingly (even unto death) is part and parcel of race in the United States. It is just “in the water,” as they say. In the logic of America, it’s not necessary to question one’s racial assumptions about people of color, because those lives -- including Jaela’s and my own -- simply do not matter.

At Urban Hope, a community-based youth ministry in the Walltown neighborhood of Durham, North Carolina, I have the privilege of leading a team of folks who journey with young people and their families seeking a way of life different from the one our society presents to us. Together, we seek a way of life grounded in Jesus Christ, a way of life in which #BlackLivesMatter.

Every other Monday night, in an event we call “Bible Jump-Off,” our staff gathers with 10 to 12 neighborhood teenagers in grades 7 to 12 to share a meal, play games and study Scripture. It was during a Bible Jump-Off session last month when Jaela asked her question.

We had been discussing recent events, both nationally and in Durham, in which African-American and Latino men and women had died at the hands of police and vigilantes. With Christmas approaching and unsure how to navigate the chaos of violence against black and brown bodies, we studied Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, hoping to hear a word from God.

As the story goes in Matthew 2:1-18, soon after Jesus was born, wise men came to Jerusalem looking for “the child … born king of the Jews.” The news of this newborn king spread quickly, startling the entire city, and especially Herod, the region’s ruler. Afraid and perceiving a threat to his throne, Herod sought to find the child and destroy him. When that failed -- the holy family having fled to Egypt -- he ordered the deaths of every boy in Bethlehem age 2 and under.

Imagine the terror of a family fleeing its homeland to seek refuge in a foreign nation. Hear the screams of a community being torn apart by violence. Imagine the slaughter of young children whose lives were stripped away with impunity.

As Racquel Gill, an Urban Hope intern, told our youth that night, “We often tell the Christmas story as one of God coming as cute little baby Jesus but neglect to share that God as baby Jesus came into a world full of chaos.”

Not just any chaos, but a chaos produced by fear. And not just any fear, but a fear produced by assumptions.

Herod assumed that this baby Jesus, heralded as “king of the Jews,” had come to end his reign and destroy his life. His violent persecution of Bethlehem was a tactic of self-preservation, an act of self-defense.

Yet the life Herod sought to preserve and defend was no life at all. As a ruler within the Roman Empire -- an empire built on the oppression and exploitation of people like the Jews -- Herod lived a life that was more like death. His unchecked assumptions caused him to miss “the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:19), life where “the oppressed [are set] free” (Luke 4:18), the life that Jesus brings.

“Why didn’t he just ask her what was going on?”

Considered in light of Jaela’s question, the actions of Herod and Theodore Wafer, both rooted in fear, call us to examine the assumptions that make up our own way of life. How are we -- personally, communally, institutionally -- complicit in preserving a way of life built on the assumption of black criminality? Do we persecute others in the name of self-preservation and self-defense? Do black lives matter to us? Or are we interested in people of color only when we can exploit them for social, cultural, political and economic gain?

Obviously, a conversation about assumptions is not, by itself, going to change America. But talking about our individual assumptions with others can create space for us to see the larger systems that shape our way of life. By exposing ourselves and the systems in which we are entangled, we too, like the wise men, can experience the manifestation of God. We too can experience Christ in the chaos.