all (black) lives matter

A cursory view of American headlines in the past three weeks reveal a deep sickness in the way we relate to and value each other.  The spotlight on the unjust treatment of people of color has unfortunately led to an increase in the societal divide we experience in our view of race.  When Obama was elected, celebratory cries of a post-racial society were heard.  When Trayvon Martin’s death kicked off a spree of monthly spotlights on the killing of men of color by white civilians and police officers, thoughts of a post-racial society were arrested.  At times I feel like we are experiencing a time warp, as if this pattern of openly hating or killing members of our society must be viewed as an admission that men of color (and women, like Heather Heyer, who stand with them) are seen as criminals at worst and as expendable, or not valuable, at best.  For many, the 2016 election and recent conflicts in Charlottesville confirm that some Americans do not value others who are not white and Christian.  In other moments, when I remember the long view, the historically slow path resistance and change must take, I am encouraged that at least such routine and rampant injustice is finally being broadcast.  Exposing the status quo as unsustainable must happen before resisting the status quo can take root.  Surely these reports, and the public outcry and angst they cause, are a good thing. 

Exposing the status quo as unsustainable must happen before resisting the status quo can take root.

Just as one can view the last 40 months as depressing or as a step toward health and healing, the dominant responses to these patterned killings are disparate, and seem to feed off of different realities.  For many, the sequential headlines force us to acknowledge our systems and structures of power place an unjust burden of suspicion and criminality upon people of color.  For some, these deaths are deserved—a result of criminal behavior and disrespect for noble and selfless authority figures.  For others, the fact that these deaths are now headlines is evidence of a biased, liberal-leaning media.  For a few, like many of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, the unrest is due to an unfair world that values new minorities and punishes old majorities.  These responses, and the passion with which they are held, belie a stubborn commitment to hold our views tightly, refusing to consider new information or the perspective of another.  Rather than engaging those around us with curiosity, we often resort to shouting our own experience, unaware of our particular bias.  If a person does not struggle under the particular curse of being born into poverty or with darkly hued skin, she can live freely in a world in which she expects to be helped in stores, respected by strangers, and kept safe by law enforcement officers.  However, a poor or black or Hispanic person has no such luxury.  Their experiences of life—not liberal bias or manipulated optics—teaches them that strangers treat them with suspicion and the police are sometimes not allies, but a hindrance to their flourishing.  Until we learn to engage each other’s stories, listening with interest instead of attacking out of a posture of defense, we cannot hope to understand what half of our country believes about the images and reports of the last few months.

Until we learn to engage each other’s stories, listening with interest instead of attacking out of a posture of defense, we cannot hope to understand what half of our country believes.

The response to Trayvon Martin’s death gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM).  The movement, fluid and evolving, orients itself around a few guiding principles: “Lead with love. Low ego, high impact. Move at the speed of trust” (Jane Kramer, Oct. 19, 2016, New Yorker).  Although this movement has often been characterized as full of angry and irrational people with chips on their shoulders, these principles suggest a value system built on humility, and therefore highly resonate with Christian perspectives.  Didn’t Christ also demonstrate a foundational belief in the community’s worth instead of a self-centered orientation?  The guiding principles of BLM, if not always demonstrated in action, suggest a way of moving that requires consideration of another’s perspective, rather than boldly moving forward in “rightness”, or even justice.  These principles suggest that change is possible, and can even be achieved, with civility.  Despite the higher calling here, this movement, because of its actively-resisting-oppression name, gave birth to exasperated counter claims that “All lives matter!” 

Didn’t Christ also demonstrate a foundational belief in the community’s value instead of only a self-centered orientation?

Of course all lives matter.  That is the point!  What if, as a society, and particularly as people following Christ, we started to listen to one another?  What if we decided to recognize that each of us has an experience and a bias, and perhaps we should claim those truths about our selves even as we also listen to the—by definition, different—perspectives of an other?  What if we decided to eliminate defensiveness as an option of a response?  The All Lives Matter (ALM) reaction and claim suggest that their adherents are correcting BLM so that it can be more inclusive.  Not so.  The cry of ALM is more often a stubborn endorsement of the status quo.  It refuses to acknowledge that in this country, many of our laws, educational systems, housing plans, stereotypes, law enforcement officers, financial systems and neighborhoods, black lives do NOT, in fact, matter.  Black lives are underestimated, feared, rejected, suspected and criminalized as a matter of course.  This movement is, foundationally if not always in action, a humble but persistent plea for people to agree on this most basic of assumptions: that all lives matter.  It is also a damning indictment that ALL lives cannot matter until black lives matter.

It is also a damning indictment that ALL lives cannot matter until black lives matter.

This easy jump to “all” without acknowledging the “black” has a long history in our country.  Tane-hisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, helpfully reminds us that in this very country our mainstream version of history simply erases the contributions of people of color.  If anything, we celebrate any teacher or curriculum that offers a level of robust explanation about what slavery is and how it worked.  We are thrilled when these questions are answered.  And yet, this easy satisfaction ignores the fact that these very same slaves created the wealth, infrastructure and buildings of the Southern United States, paying off the country’s debt from the Revolution in the process.  No, slaves were not just victims; they were craftsmen, artisans, child-rearing experts, chefs, physicians, builders, farmers and administrators.  Just as our history has denied the fact that our country was built by—not just on the bodies, but with the help of and under the leadership of—African American slaves, so the “all lives matter” cry seeks to ignore and overlook the needed assertion that black lives do matter. The legacy of our claimed history is that black lives were maybe one day abused, but now they matter just like the rest of us.  Until we proclaim all the ways in which black lives have contributed to our country, despite living through centuries of terror and pain, we cannot admit the many ways that black lives continue to be viewed as expendable, despite their great worth. 

Next week, thoughts on Labor Day.

why i weep

an open letter about the 2016 election

This week has been hard for me and many others in our country, and I suspect it would help us heal if I tried to explain why.  After spending time with college students and talking with a few of you, I realize that many who voted for Trump misunderstand our weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I am reaching out because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am reaching out because I want you to have every chance to understand.  I am reaching out because I need to heal and believe developing empathy for each other is a crucial part of that process.  If you also want to heal, if you are willing to see me as a thoughtful person whose feelings and perceptions of the world are valuable, then read on.  Although I think many will resonate with me, I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, so I will only write for myself.  

I am disappointed we elected a President who, in my view, does not have the experience to excel at the multiple aspects his job will require.  I am disappointed we chose to believe he will surround himself with wise council, even though he repeatedly thwarted opinions--even in his inner circle--that did not confirm his own.  I am disappointed we chose to trust him most of all with our economic future, even though he has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy, refused to pay bills, and has chosen to make the vast majority of his products overseas rather than in America.  

These truths disappoint and frustrate me, but they are not the reason I have cried every day, or look with pride to some of the protesting marchers, or feel betrayed and shocked by my country.  The reaction I have had to this election has nothing to do with red or blue, my candidate getting defeated, sour grapes or even frustration with policy positions.  My deep sadness comes because I feel alienated from my country given what a vote for Trump necessarily affirms.  Let me be clear: He has openly encouraged behavior and statements that portray

  • Women as gratifying objects whose primary value is demonstrated through their physical attributes.

  • Muslims as radical, unwelcome terrorists who are not to be trusted or made welcome, and who cannot be loyal to America even if they die defending our freedom.

  • Hispanic immigrants as thieves and criminals who have come to ruin American livelihoods, who cannot function as professional Americans in any environment.

  • Disabled people as objects to be mocked.

Please hear me say that I feel confident that you, the majority of Trump supporters, disagree with and loathe these statements.  I do not think you are racist or misogynistic in the way you approach others.  I also know you might feel judged and attacked by those protesting or weeping for our country.  I am sorry to have lumped you in with voters who enthusiastically endorse the statements above.

Here’s the deal though, and this is the key to understanding the tears and despair: By voting for him, you did endorse his perspectives on the value of others.  With zero intention on your part, you confirmed a perspective which negates the value of about half of our country.  For a female survivor of abuse, a Muslim, an immigrant, or a disabled person, our country’s decision to elect Trump was an irreversible statement screaming that we find them unvaluable, expendable and not one of us.  I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but this is the message that is rattling around in the hearts of half of our society.  I am a white Christian profession woman, and I am devastated that I can’t pull that message back.  I can’t unring the bell.  My students and friends and African-American daughter will have to live out the consequences of all of us saying these statements aren’t bad enough to be absolutely rejected.  They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.  They have to get up and go to work and school in a country that elevated a man who said they were not and never would be his equal.  Can you imagine leaving your house this week if you were a minority teenage girl or boy?  We had the chance to say, “no”, and instead, by electing him, we said, “more please.”  This is why I weep.

They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.

I have heard many reasons a person might have voted for Trump, and none of those include bigotry.  I hear you, and am trying to understand the dignity of your choice.  For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.  I know these ideas are already out in the world, and I know voting for Trump didn’t cause them to exist.  However, I am deeply wounded that we had the chance, as a people committed to liberty and justice, to say, “Absolutely not. I will not allow comments like that to go unchecked at my dinner table/workplace/playground.” We missed it.  Instead of saying we want to heal as a country with a terrible track record on race and gender, we decided deadly sentiments like Trump’s were not a problem.  This ability to overlook the danger in his comments reveals to me that my community either does not know any immigrants, Muslims, disabled people or victims of abuse, or that we just don’t care.  This is why I weep.

For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.

I am not interested in blame, but in helping articulate a path forward so that we can stand up as a people and say, “Absolutely not!” to words that inspire violence and exclusion.  In light of that interest, here are my commitments to you:

  1. I commit to not speaking of all Trump voters as bigoted misogynists, as if you are all the same. I will believe that you do not and did not support or minimize the damage his comments would cause many in our country. I commit to working hard to finding empathy for those whose value system allowed them to vote for our President-elect.

  2. I commit to giving our new President an open mind and my respect, even behind closed doors.

  3. I commit to confronting my own despair and to finding and celebrating moments of hope and healing.

  4. I commit to making it my daily mission to reach out and affirm every person marginalized by the power of the majority.  I will go out of my way to listen and to actively value people who are different than me.

In our commitment to healing, I ask you to consider the following:

  1. Will you commit to finding empathy for those whose lives feel endangered by trying to build relationships with people outside your race or gender?

  2. Will you commit to standing up and speaking out against jokes, stereotypes and comments that undermine the dignity and value of all God’s people?

  3. Will you follow your vote up with action that affirms life, liberty and equality for ALL, to look beyond your own interests in order to rebuild the fabric of our society?  Will you reach out to those who might feel marginalized or endangered and let them know you are an advocate for them?

I am committed to making this the moment when we agree as a people not to blame each other for our own failure as a society.  No matter who you voted for, can you commit personally to moving toward those who are weaker than you, who have less power or comfort?  If we say yes, Trump’s presidency will be one of healing and hope for all of us.