When I look at the landscape of the United States right now, the number of times I see patterns of well-intentioned people criticizing others seeking recognition and justice can, at times, overwhelm me. Often within church circles I’m around, you hear an emphasis put on personal sin, with the belief that repenting from it will transform our lives and thus the systems around us (if they even include systems in their discussion). In schools, we are often taught that those that fight for recognition and justice (of minorities) are threats, deviants, mentally ill, etc. In the public sphere, the growing tension between Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter creates a telling dialogue around what we value and why we value it. Central to each of these issues and many more is power: who has power, doesn’t have power, and who deserves power.
Let us consider the various social circles I’ve been exposed to within religious organizations. There is a tremendous emphasis put on personal sin and the power of God to transform lives if we repent. This belief is well-intentioned and not even something I disagree with, but it is incomplete; there must also be an acknowledgement of sin against others, of a disparity in very real resources, of discrimination in the distribution of goods and services or even the long-term effects of the systemic ways we degrade people of certain races or genders. As one person explained, “Look, if you’re white, heroin addiction is a disease that people want to treat, to HEAL. But if you’re black? Drug addiction is justification for incarceration or an excuse for why you can get shot by the police.” People in these circles often criticize those who speak out and fight for change within our systems, explaining that “all” people must take responsibility for their personal sin, that it was their choice to break the law. Again, none of this is untrue, it’s just incomplete. We cannot stop there, insisting that they must face judgment for their sin while we accept cheap grace. We have a responsibility to ask how we, as a society, have sinned against them and take responsibility for reconciliation.
Within schools, we can also see patterns where people seeking recognition and justice are not only criticized, but misrepresented. Consider, for instance, Andrew Jackson. In high school history books, accolades are spoken of him and the work he did in building the nation into what it is today. Unless you do your own research, you are unlikely to be taught that Jackson’s success was built on the systemic dehumanization, oppression and slaughter of native people across the country. Yet when we study the Turner Rebellion, it is often mentioned that Turner was potentially schizophrenic, mentally ill, etc. He is rarely shown as a man of faith who lived as a slave and possessed a righteous anger at the suffering and bondage pressed upon slaves from every side. Emphasis is put on the fact that Nat and his rebellion killed men, women and children but often neglect to mention that the state militia executed those involved as well as people with slight connections, reimbursing their masters afterwards for the loss of their property. The white response across the South of murdering black people without cause (to such an extent that numbers aren’t known) is also usually absent from the teaching. This is just one example of how we disparage one who fights for justice while lifting-up someone driven by power and wealth.
The last example I’ll discuss is that of the evolution of the “Lives Matter” movements. “Black Lives Matter,” came first and at its root, was a cry of a people who feel that they exist in a society that tells them through words, treatment, and resourcing that their lives don’t matter. Thus, the statement “Black Lives Matter,” was a means of affirming that a black life has value, that it does indeed matter. This is also a way of building power through solidarity with one another; alone it is easy to be cut down. Together, but asserting that one another’s life matters, there is a collective building of worth and power. A response by predominantly white people came through the phrases “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” This response is, I believe, an example of people who are most often well-intention but also deeply biased. I believe that, for the most part, they recognize that they do not value the black life the same as the lives of white people or police and furthermore, believe that if they MUST value those lives, it comes at a cost to blue lives or white lives. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of those who believe value is a finite resource: valuing the lives of other people does not change the worth of your own life. It’s saying, “As I possess human dignity and worth, so should others who currently do not.” When we consider the power that lies in the police, the statement that black lives matter doesn’t negate the life of police, it cries out for the black life to be valued by the blue. In other words, “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” view the lifting up of black lives as a zero-sum game: where each race or demographic’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of another race or demographic. “Black Lives Matter” views the value of humanity as many people view love: just as our capacity to love others grows and expands without loss of love in one’s self, we can value more and more people as we value ourselves without loss. This sentiment is echoed in the words of Jesus himself, when he says in Mark 12:31, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The three examples I’ve provided are just a few places where I see the manifestation of the patterns of criticism towards people seeking recognition and justice. While not all-inclusive, I believe these examples highlight how deeply rooted and systemic the issue is: life and liberty are valued far less in this country than maintaining power, and this truth is found within the heart of what we say and implement in our political, economic and social structures. Just as in the time of slavery, while the elite are a small number, they are mighty, and they are also effective in sculpting the culture and beliefs of larger white America so they feel that they have more in common with the elite than they do those that have been silently and systemically disenfranchised. Thus, the non-elite, white majority continue to voluntarily give over more of their freedoms and wealth to those in power while believing it is those with the least amount of power who are stripping them of it, all with the best of intentions.