Whose Lives Matter?

I write this in the shadow of two more contested shootings of a black men by police officers. There is video of both—troubling and haunting as they show the last few minutes of a person’s life—it appears that one man was largely subdued when the shooting took place, and the other was sitting in a car complying with a policeman’s request to show ID. Now full disclosure here: One of my closest friends from childhood just retired after 20+ years of service as a police officer in our hometown. I believe that the men and women who protect our streets do a dangerous and mostly thankless job, and that they deserve to go home at the end of each shift. I know that there is often more to these stories than first appears, but I also know that not all police officers are like my friend.

Last week I was in St. Louis for a gathering of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It’s one of the perks of being a seminary president that I get to attend conferences like this one—the ATS is the accrediting body for seminaries and other institutions that train Christian and Jewish leaders. For the most part it was a very positive experience—governance wonks are rarely the life of the party, but these were good people of faith doing important work. Not much more you can ask for.

Turns out that our ATS meeting place was just a few blocks from where the Dred Scott decision originated, and a mere 13 miles from Ferguson, where a young black man was shot and killed by a policeman in 2014.

The close proximity to two ugly chapters in American race relations created space for our gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders to reflect on what it means to prepare women and men for leadership in such a troubled context. On the final day of the conference there was a plenary panel titled “Theological Education After Ferguson,” which was helpful and deeply moving for me.

One interesting part of the event was a discussion of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which emerged after an unarmed black teenager was killed in Florida by a civilian who was patrolling his neighborhood. The whole idea that someone feels the need to say that black lives matter is still foreign to me, but I’m a 53-year-old white guy. That’s no crime, of course, but neither is it much of a vantage point from which to understand what it means to be black in these United States. That it needs to be said—that we need a reminder that the lives of our black neighbors matter—should break our hearts. It should compel us, like the leaders in the Old Testament, when faced with their complicity in the brokenness of their community, to wail and tear our clothes and cover our heads with ashes. But that’s not the response that’s getting through.

Too many white Americans try to evade the message that black lives matter.

How? Well, many police officers react by saying blue lives matter, too. More broadly I hear people say that all lives matter, appearing to agree with the protestors, but really trying to gut the protest of its content and context. Saying that all lives matter, which should be true on its face, negates the experience of millions of black Americans all over this country. Why?

Because unlike the lives of our black neighbors, the idea that white lives matter in America has never been broadly or functionally in doubt.

For six years I worked on the fundraising staff for Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. Each year we would design direct mail campaigns to bring in donations to support our work. We would test different stories and pictures to see which would spark the most generous response, and since 80% of our guests were black, we always tried to be faithful to represent the people we actually served. The problem was that the picture which brought in the highest level of giving, every year, was a stock photograph of an old white man.

White lives have always mattered in this country, but that’s not been the case for black Americans.

The Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court stated that black people did not legally exist in America. After years of slavery and a dangerous century of freedom, life is still a stacked lottery for too many black Americans. I have no idea what that pain is like. Black-on-black crime is bad enough, but when the legal system has been against you and you can’t even begin to trust that your kids are safe with the local police, that’s a kind of fear and anger that I will never know. I hadn’t grasped the bitterness and frustration that the statement, “all lives matter” caused for black men and women until I listened to the panel discussion in St. Louis.

Now we’re faced with two more shooting deaths of black men by police officers. How do I face my friends who fear for the lives of their kids, simply because they aren’t white? How do I help my son understand the unintentional and unmerited privilege that he enjoys, and inspire him to make sure his generation does a better job of this than mine is doing?

I wish I knew the answers to those questions, and to the others I’m too ashamed to ask in writing. All I can say for sure is that Jesus doesn’t want it this way, and in that statement I find my marching orders as a Christian and a pastor and a teacher.

The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rooted as it is in in the aftermath of another tragic death, has to break us and remake us into people who love our neighbors—even when we think they’re our enemies—and reach out to the hopeless and marginalized. Of course all lives matter, especially to Jesus, but in our society that’s not the way it works just yet. And so it’s good and right and our holy responsibility to affirm that black lives matter, at least until it’s true.

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