Black Lives Matter

Published in February 2015 issue of South Church newsletter, The Voice:

“Black Lives Matter.” We have all heard or seen this quote in recent months. Sometimes appearing on social media as #blacklivesmatter, these words affirm the lives of black people in response to recent deaths of African-American men at the hands of police officers.

I have not encountered anyone who refutes this statement outright; no one has said, “No, black lives do not matter.” Though I often hear, “Yes, of course black live matter, but…” What follows the “Yes, but…” varies. Some want to argue the details of specific cases, suggesting that the men who were killed were somehow responsible, inviting the deadly violence upon themselves. Others worry that statements like #blacklivesmatter are divisive, emphasizing our differences rather than our shared humanity. The most common retort I have heard is, “Yes, but…all lives matter,” suggesting that to affirm the specific value of black lives somehow diminishes the value of other lives.

I do not agree. In fact, Jesus (and the Gospel writers) regularly named specific, excluded people in order to affirm universal inclusion. Consider the story in John’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well. Samaritans were a mixed-race people who were despised and routinely discriminated against by Jews. To Jews, Samaritan lives mattered less than Jewish lives. In fact, Jews believed that Samaritans were excluded from God’s promise and protection. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well affirms her as a child of God. Jesus is identifying a specific group that has been excluded in order to affirm a universally inclusive God. This story and its message would completely fall apart if it said only that Jesus met a “person” at the well. Its power comes from singling out Samaritans (and women) and saying these lives matter.

Martin Luther King, Jr. used the same approach in the civil rights movement. He focused on full civil rights for those who were being specifically excluded, black people. By naming the specifically excluded he was affirming that these rights are universal.

Like the Samaritans of Jesus’ day, African-Americans today still experience unequal treatment in ways small, large and life threatening. These daily threats and indignities send a message that the lives of black people matter less than the lives of white people. I don’t doubt that if Jesus had been on Twitter he would have tweeted a selfie of himself and the Samaritan woman with the hashtag, #samaritanlivesmatter. So today, affirming that #blacklivesmatter is a way to boldly witness to our universally inclusive God.

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