The controversy around the group and movement identified as #BlackLivesMatter has stirred no small amount of controversy since its inception. By stressing that black lives matter, the typical argument goes, they must be suggesting that black lives matter more than other lives. Isn’t everyone of value? Why this focus just on black lives?
I get it. The name has made me uncomfortable from the beginning. And so I’m likely to opt for the compromise that many of our politicians on the campaign trail have suggested. “Yes, black lives matter, because all lives matter.”
I get it. But while I’m more comfortable with the assertion that all lives matter, I also know full well that it misses the point. The movement around #BlackLivesMatter isn’t saying that all lives don’t matter, or don’t matter equally. Rather, I think they are saying that the way this country and culture acts, you would think that we have collectively decided that black lives don’t matter, at least not as much as white ones do.
A colleague of mine put it this way: “When you see a house on fire and direct the firefighters to that house, you’re not saying that all the houses in the neighborhood don’t matter, you’re saying this one especially matters because it’s on fire.” My colleague is an African American pastor, I should add, who lives in a predominantly white neighborhood and has on various occasions been pulled over, though not for speeding. When he asks why, the police officers say they’re just doing their job. “Right now,” he added, “our house is on fire.”
There was a similar argument among some theologians I knew a decade or two ago around liberationist theology and, in particular, the phrase “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Gustavo Gutierrez coined this assertion in his landmark book A Theology of Liberation (1971). Some theologians found this declaration quite offensive, declaring that it violated Martin Luther’s claim and assertion that we are not justified by our works – or, for that matter, our circumstances – but by grace through faith alone. At the time I experienced this argument, my children were quite young, and perhaps for that reason I felt like I understood something of the point Gutierrez was making. He wasn’t saying that God doesn’t love everyone, but that God gives particular preference and attention to those who are poor and hurting. Just like when I gave more attention and concern to one of my kids when he or she was hurting, that didn’t mean I loved the other less, just that that one needed me in that moment more.
I think that’s part of what’s going on in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Of course all lives matter, but right now we’re not acting as if that’s true. Moreover, some of our family are hurting and need and deserve serious attention. The name and movement continue to make me uncomfortable. But they’re supposed to. Because they are calling us to first see and acknowledge and then act to change an uncomfortable reality in our world. And so that’s why #BlackLivesMatter. And that’s also why, even when it makes me uncomfortable, I realize again and again that everything I’ve read in the Bible and know about God through Jesus tells me this is true.