After our church put up a banner in front of our building with the words “black lives matter” on it, I received an email from someone whose identity remains a mystery to me. The message was short and to the point, “ALL lives matter. The truly Christian message is ALL.”
I appreciated the note. Though email is not my favorite way to communicate, in these times of social distancing, I am happy for human interaction in any form. Thinking that others might also be interested in understanding why our Missions & Outreach Committee decided the banner would be a good way to respond to current events in our country, I am sharing my response below.
First, allow me to thank you for your note. Your point is well taken. All lives do matter. As you probably know, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament make your point abundantly clear in many ways. One of those ways is that we are all created in the image of God. This reality is woven in and out of pages of scripture from Genesis to revelation. It is exactly for this reason then we are compelled to say black lives matter. We say black lives matter because we believe all lives matter, black ones included.
The reason we feel the need to say expressly that black lives matter is because there is so much evidence that they do not matter in our current state of affairs. We know that black Americans are nearly three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white Americans and nearly one and half times more likely to be unarmed when they are killed by police. We know that in the sixteen states where the black resident’s share of the population exceeds the national percentage, the prevalence of death from COVID-19 exceeded their population share by as much as twenty-five percent in some states. No, I am not suggesting that COVID-19 targets black people. I am saying that the structural inequities in our current way of doing life make black communities particularly vulnerable to this or any pandemic.
Saying black lives matter is not saying that only black lives matter, but saying all lives matter while so many black lives vanish each day turns a deaf ear and a blind eye to the very real, every day experience on the part of our sisters and brothers created in the image of God with black and brown skin of black lives not mattering. In the church, we cannot do this any longer. If you know the history of the church in the United States, you know that too often the church has been silent in the face of injustice and discrimination against black lives. There have been many times when the church has aided in the perpetuation of that injustice and benefited from it. Therefore, we are especially concerned in these days to stand with and be a source of encouragement for those who are working for equity, fairness, and justice.
To your assertion that the truly Christian message is all, I would agree that it is a message for us all. Yes, God made us all. Yes, God loves us all. Yes, Christ died for us all. Yes, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us all. We all find our best selves when we come to see ourselves and each other as beloved children of God. There is much about the Christian message that includes us all.
At the same time, the Christian message is also specific. Jesus makes it plain, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” The Bible makes clear that God is especially concerned about us when we are in trouble. In fact, nothing seems to bother God so much as people who are cut off and denied the good and abundant life that God intends for all of God’s creation. This idea is made clear by three stories that Jesus tells in chapter fifteen of the Gospel of Luke. In these stories, one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin and one about a lost son, we get a glimpse of just how focused God’s love can be when part of God’s creation is cut off from the goodness and mercy that God intended for us all. In telling the story about the lost sheep, Jesus does not say that the shepherd stops caring about the ninety-nine that are safe. But he does say that the shepherd leaves them to go and find the one who has the great need. In telling the story about the lost coin, Jesus does not say that the nine coins that are in the woman’s possession do not matter. He does say that she lights a lamp and searches carefully until she finds the coin that is lost. In telling the story of the lost son, Jesus never suggests that the son who remains at home does not matter. He does say that while the lost son was still far off, the waiting father ran to him, embraced him and kissed him.
Similarly, saying that black lives matter does not diminish the truth that all lives matter. It is because all lives matter that we must say black lives matter. It is necessary because from 1619 to 2020, from Jamestown to Minneapolis and all the days and places in between, from slavery to Jim Crow to standing in line this week to vote in the Georgia primary for four or more hours the message has been that black lives do not matter. When someone in our family is sick, we take care of them. That does not mean that we care less for the rest of our family. When a member of the church is going through a hard time, we do what we can to help them get through it. That does not mean that we care less for the other members of the church. Our black and brown brothers and sisters have been going through a rough time for the last 400 years. Saying black lives matter acknowledges that reality. It recognizes the pain and anguish of being black in America, pain and anguish that has too often been overlooked or ignored by those of us in the church.
For those of us who pray as Jesus taught, not that God’s will would be done in heaven as it is on earth, but that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, saying black lives matter can be both a prayer of confession and a commission to service. It allows us to acknowledge a history of wrongs and it challenges us to make our world a place where the life we share together is just for all.