This past week the US has been rocked by two new slayings of young black men in police custody and within days the slaying of five police officers at a rally protesting those deaths in apparent retaliation. Social media has been abuzz with energized discussions providing a lot more heat than light, much of it cast in terms of slogans serving as shorthand for the focus of the poster’s concerns.
The slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which originated in the wake of a rash of deaths of young black men two years ago, has dominated much of the newsfeed. In the resulting discussions, one poster dismissed the BLM slogan as a mere platitude, “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” Others vehemently responded to the BLM slogan with the retort “All Lives Matter!” as if these statements are somehow mutually exclusive. Finally, those outraged by the police slayings in Dallas responded in righteous indignation that “Blue Lives Matter,” again, as if these concerns were mutually exclusive.
Let me state my position on the value of life right up front: Murder is murder. In the end, it does not matter whether it is a police officer killing a young black man in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old child, a gunman with a weapon of war mowing down police at a rally or patrons at a nightclub, or a state agent pumping lethal chemicals into the veins of a convicted criminal in a padded cell. Any time the choice is made to intentionally cause the death of another human being when life is a realistic option, it is murder, regardless of how the killers may seek to rationalize it. And it is wrong.
In that sense, the assertion that “All Lives Matter” is true, at least in principle if not always in practice. But to understand any text, one must consciously deal with the context in which it arises. And the context of “Black Lives Matter” is deeply troubling.
Getting Away with Murder
The slogan first arose out of the trial of George Zimmerman, a troubled Latino/Anglo man whose frustrated dreams of becoming a cop were played out in becoming a self-appointed armed “neighborhood watch” guard in a gated community in Sanford, FL. The official Neighborhood Watch program’s name reveals its function: Watch for signs of criminal behavior in one’s Neighborhood and report what one sees to law enforcement. It does not involve arming oneself. And it certainly does not involve stalking the offender with a gun.
But that is what George Zimmerman did. And when his prey, a 17-year-old black kid from Miami visiting his father, realized he was being stalked, he hid and then surprised his stalker, beating him with his fists as he angrily demanded why the man was following him. No doubt, the kid was afraid for his very life and with good reason. It was at this point that Zimmerman, whom the kid had gotten the best of, shot and killed him.
The legal response to this event was a shameful farce. The local state attorney initially refused to charge the killer with anything. Florida’s ethically challenged attorney general did nothing, maintaining a deafening silence in the face of a growing call for action. When a special prosecutor was finally appointed, the jury instructions allowed by the court were so narrowly drawn that Zimmerman was able to successfully assert self-defense and was acquitted by a virtually all-white jury. The analogies to the Rodney King trial in Simi Valley in California which set off days of deadly rioting in Los Angeles are unavoidable.
In the end, George Zimmerman got away with murder. And what became abundantly clear in that trial was that the life of his 17-year-old black male victim was less valuable than that of his Latino/Anglo killer. At least in this case, black lives did not matter.
When this pattern began to be replicated in case after case of killings of black males in police control across the country caught on cell phones and video recordings, the angry counter-assertion that “Black Lives Matter” began to take shape. That is the immediate context. But there is a larger context without which BLM cannot be fully understood.
From Plantation Porches to Racist Closets
These events occur at the end of four centuries of racist culture that began as chattel slavery of African peoples and their descendants which only ended 150 years ago. When one includes colonial history with its brisk trade of human property as the middle passage of triangular trade, America has been a slave culture much longer than not.
With the end of slavery, the trajectory of racism has been one of increasing invisibility but with correspondingly even more power to shape our culture. Slavery quickly evolved into a set of highly discriminatory Jim Crow laws which sought a patina of legitimacy for what was blatantly racist discrimination. It would take another century after the end of slavery for the courts to finally strike these laws down.
The result was to drive this pernicious prejudice increasingly into the closet as overt racism became socially unacceptable for a polite (translated: middle and upper class white) society wishing to deny its past, protect its continued privilege and indulge its ongoing prejudices. But these black holes of closeted racism continue to give birth to a subtle but even more powerful institutional racism which infects every aspect of our culture today. It is always easier to confront overt prejudices. The covert (and often unconscious) versions assert themselves in largely invisible but effective ways.
One of the more pointed ways closet racism has manifest itself is in the ironically named “war on drugs.” From the beginning, drug laws, enacted largely to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, have punished black drug use and sales more harshly than their white counterparts. The difference in degrees of punishment for crack cocaine, largely used by poor people of color, and powder cocaine, largely used by middle and upper class white people, is but one example. The racial disparity in the demographics of the world’s largest prison gulag and the level of unabashed violence in cocaine cowboy SWAT tactics in impoverished neighborhoods attests to the effectiveness of this form of closet racism.
Another way this powerful closet racism has manifest itself is in the absolute refusal of the US to deal with what is clearly a socially debilitating addiction to firearms that has destabilized both US culture and the world. US gun manufacturers are far and away the greatest suppliers of weaponry, both intentionally and unintentionally, to all kinds to regimes around the world ranging from what became the Taliban and ISIS to the deadly paramilitaries of Central America.
This year, US firearm deaths – which include homicides, suicides and accidental deaths – are poised to surpass automobile deaths as the leading cause of deaths not resulting from illness. US gun policies as well as the associated attitudes about guns in the general public reflect a deeply fearful populace. Much of that fear is based in race.
According to the Pew Research data, support for increased regulation of firearms is found among a wide demographic with a majority among urban and suburban residents, women, those under the age of 50, those making less than $30,000/year, those with no college or college graduates, and registered Democrats and Independents.
Those who say that gun rights are more important than increased control of firearms are fairly narrowly defined: white non-Hispanic men with some college, rural residents, those registered Republican and those over the age of 50. While a clear majority of US citizens support increasing controls over firearms, it is the demands of a powerful minority and the lobbying power of the NRA, heavily financed by firearms corporations, which continues to dictate US gun policy paralyzing all efforts to change the laws even in the face of profoundly disturbing events like the Orlando Pulse massacre.
A Dawning Reality: We’re losing.
In looking at these demographics, the last of the four contextual aspects comes squarely into focus. The 2000 election of Barack Obama, the first mixed race president in US history, a product of a broken home and a beneficiary of affirmative action, and the rejection of the business-as-usual Republican Mitt Romney, the epitome of white privilege, caused the alarms to sound in the snug, safe closets of racism across the US.
The response was fast and furious. The last eight years of US politics has been marked by the resurrection of a Know-Nothing racism in the form of a TEA Party and self-appointed militias along the US border. It has seen the losing Republican Party determine on election night to engage in obstructionism for the duration of the President’s term which has resulted in the least productive Congress in US history and an incomplete divided SCOTUS now largely incapable of rendering majority decisions.
The current presidential nominee of the Republican Party, whose rhetoric is frequently peppered with subtle and not so subtle racist references, embodies the desperation many white non-Hispanic Americans feel. They rightly recognize that the country is changing, that our demographics no longer provide the automatic electoral veto that they have presumed to be their right since the dawn of the nation-state. But despite their attempts to gerrymander Congress and state governments, bar poor people of color from voting and shut down governments when they have not gotten their way, the reality is beginning to dawn on the scions of American white privilege: We are losing.
Given this context, it is not surprising that a rapidly dwindling white non-Hispanic majority, looking about in fear as their presumed entitlements to white privilege are slowly eroding, would resolutely refuse to see the danger persons of color, particularly young black males, currently experience when in the proximity of predominately white male law enforcement. If it’s not happening to them or their own children - at least so far - it’s not a problem.
Dismissal of “Black Lives Matter” as a platitude is but one of many expressions of a defensiveness that is to be expected in the current climate of cultural transition. Because while it is true that All Lives Matter or at least that they should - particularly those who place their lives in danger for the public daily as law enforcement officers - that does not somehow mutually exclude the reality revealing itself nightly on our evening news that Black Lives do not appear to matter as much as others in our country and never really have, a reality which increasingly demands our immediate attention.
Jesus on Lives that Matter
I am trained as a lawyer and an academician whose primary areas of concern have always been ethics and the sociology of religion, law and society. My comments above reflect that background. But I am also an Episcopal priest who studied liberation theology while in seminary, spending a good bit of time in Central America to observe it firsthand. And while I am hardly a theocrat, seeking to impose a form of Christian sharia law on my countrywomen and men as is favored by many religious conservatives, I do think the historical Jesus has something of value to add to this conversation.
There is a teaching in Jesus’ beatitudes which is highly analogous to Black Lives Matter. Considered the core of Jesus’ kingdom of G-d teachings, the Beatitudes are so named because they begin with words of beatification: “Blessed are…”
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus casts his lot with the poor. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It’s tempting to blow this assertion off with a patronizing, “Aw, gee, that’s nice, Jesus. You feel sorry for the poor people.” That’s certainly what many of us do. It’s also tempting to avoid this teaching by asserting that “All Lives Matter” to G-d. If G-d is the source, ground and destination of all Creation, clearly they do. But the implications of this statement go much, much deeper than banal theologizing.
When Jesus teaches that the poor are blessed, he does so in the role of the prophet. Most Hebrew prophets, in whose venerable line Jesus clearly stands, begin with the words, “Thus says the Lord…” Though Jesus no doubt did identify with the exploited poor who made up the vast majority of the 1st CE Roman province of Judea, his own family included, he is not speaking for them here. His words are subtle. It is G-d who blesses the poor. Why? Because it is clearly the poor who most need G-d’s blessing.
It is critical to note that this is a complete reversal of the worldview common to his Judean society and to our own. Nothing in the lives of the poor suggested they could be seen as even remotely blessed by G-d. Quite the opposite. If they were not sinners or suffering for someone else’s sin (Who sinned, this man or his parents? JN 9) why would their lives be so miserable? Conversely, the well-to-do Pharisee who stands on the street corner proclaiming “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…" (LK 18) reflects the prevailing view that wealth, power and status all suggested G-d’s favor.
Jesus’ beatitude completely overturns such assumptions.
Where the analogy of this beatitude to Black Lives Matter becomes clear is in the import of his teaching. If Jesus is right and G_d sees the poor as blessed, what does this suggest about the activities and attitudes of those who make and keep them poor? How would a G_d whose blessing rests on the poor feel about efforts to exploit them?
Perhaps most importantly, what does this suggest is the appropriate response for the followers of Jesus who are not poor but whose wealth, power and status are attained at their expense? The answer extends far beyond the knee jerk response of a condescending and patronizing charity exercised out of one’s excess. It is ultimately a question of a just society.
The liberationists called this G-d’s “preferential option for the poor.“ It sees the ongoing exploitation of the poor whom G-d blesses as a sin. And it calls for conversion of those who find themselves in the roles of both exploiters and beneficiaries of that exploitation.
Black Lives Matter is a call to consciousness of the many ways our society communicates to our fellow Americans of color that their lives do not matter, at least not as much as their countrywomen and men. It is a call to recognize all the social contexts in which this devaluation of human beings of color occurs. Most importantly, it is a call to reconsider these attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, and the behaviors which flow from them. The word the gospel writers would have used here is repent.
When Jesus articulated this radical vision of a kingdom of G-d in which the poor were blessed and those who exploited them were called to repentance and change of life, he was rewarded as are most prophets: by quickly being put out of his audience’s misery. It’s always a lot easier to crucify a prophet than to take their prophetic message seriously. Undoubtedly that is as true today as it was in Jesus’ time.
All Lives Matter: More than a Platitude?
The US stands at the crossroads of many changes today, not the least of which is the question of how we will adjust to becoming a minority-majority nation-state in which no racial or ethnic group will predominate and thus presume a privilege to pursue their own interests at the expense of all others. How we respond to that challenge may well define whether this country which prides itself on “liberty and justice for all” – even when that has not always been the case – will survive to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
It is true that all lives matter. They matter to G-d, they matter to a nation-state whose stated ideals recognize the truth that “all men are created equal” to be self-evident and they matter to psychologically healthy human beings. But in a violent racist culture like our own, it is precisely the success of movements like the “Black Lives Matter” that will determine if otherwise empty assertions that “All Lives Matter” ever become more than a mere platitude.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8