Thanks to saturation coverage of what feels like a Foggy Bottom edition of Jersey Shore, you’re forgiven if you didn’t get word that today Christians et al marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder by marching on the National Mall to end racism. A friend asked if I’d be participating today. While I joined the Million Minister March in the fall, I could do so today.
“I’ll write a blog post instead,” I joked.
Then it occurred to me that, more than a lazy man’s excuse, it could prove more productive to write a post for the contrarians rather than to march with the like-minded, to reflect on why Black Lives Matter matters for the All Lives Matter masses.
I recall how it was sometime after the Ferguson shooting, the images of a militarized police and a rioting black citizenry in the papers, that I first noticed the All Lives Matter flags draped from front porches and over hedges here in the neighborhood. Facebook comments and threads followed.
And, of course, all lives do matter.
But the incontestable obviousness of such an assertion is exactly what makes rebutting it so fraught.
Black Lives Matter.
All Lives Matter.
African-Americans, Stanley noted to me over his shrimp and grits, have a particular, peculiar story to tell that can be neither lost nor obfuscated if America (or, even, the Church in America) is to be a truthful people.
Black Lives Matter matters because it recognizes how African-Americans share not only a common story but a story which reminds them how they need one another and need each other to remind them of the Enemy they face.
The problem with All Lives Matter is that it emerges from no peculiarly shared, community-bound story.
All Lives Matter, at best, is a universal principle.
As people who worship a God who took particular flesh in a specific crucified Jew, Christians refuse to speak in terms of generic universal truths.
Because it emerges apart from any particular shared story, All Lives Matter can only imply that white Americans should feel threatened by the African American imperative to remember and retell their own story. The felt threat is a symptom of our inability as Americans to grapple truthfully with how we are a slave nation. The harmless hagiography we teach our children about Martin Luther King is but another symptom, yet another is our denial over the many unseen ways in which racism still grips us. As a father of two hispanic/indigenous Mayan children, I’m often taken aback by how my own racism blinds me to how they’re seen and perceived.
That many feel threatened by Black Lives Matter and do not how to locate themselves within that particular ugly story, opting instead for the generic unthreatening alternative All Lives Matter, demonstrates, I think, how conversations about race and racism become unintelligible to the extent they get abstracted away from the particular language of sin and redemption.
Without the ecclesial language of the Church, and the low anthropology with which it views the old Adam that abides in every one of us, we’re left instead with the American myth or moral progress as our alternative.
The presumption that we’ve overcome racism thus becomes a part of how we understand ourselves as Americans; All Lives Matter thus threatens our self-understanding. As Joe Winters argues in Hope Draped in Black, the narrative of progress- or, as Gerhard Forde would term it, the glory story- is not only a false narrative it is, like all lies, a pernicious narrative, for it’s “truth” relies upon minimizing conflicts and contradictions. Black Lives Matter agitates against the myth of moral progress and requires the telling of stories in tension with it.
The story-less mantra All Lives Matter reveals, how there are only two options in dealing with a wrong so wrong, like slavery and racism, it seems nothing can be done to make it right. The first option is to forget it, which the glory story of American moral progress unintentionally invites us to do. The only other option is to frame the story of the wrong with in the story of sin and redemption. In other words, white Christians in America, who ought to be confessing their badness every Sunday, should be the last white people in American offended by the notion that they too might be racist in ways visible and invisible. White Christians possess their own particular story, not the generic story of All Lives Matter, but the story of the One who rose from the dead for our justification.
White Christians possess a story which punctures the stifling myth of moral progress by insisting that we are always at once, simultaneously, sinful yet reckoned in the right only according to God’s gratuitous forgiveness.
While Christians possess the very story that should gird us to engage the difficult truth-telling and truth-hearing required by a conversation about race and racism, the problem is that the pernicious myth of moral progress is more than merely an American myth.
The glory story, with its high anthropology, is the story laid over top the Gospel story every Sunday in countless churches.
Black Lives Matter thus militates against not only the self-understanding we receive in the public square but from the pulpit as well.
As Hauerwas argues:
“Racism is a sin that can only be dealt with by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If slavery is a wrong so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right, the only alternative is to be drafted into a history of God’s redemption that makes confession and forgiveness a reality. Only those who are willing to be forgiven are those who can seek reconciliation with those they have harmed.”
For American Christians to be a truthful people, white and black Christians must share their stories with another, testing their testimonies against the truthfulness of the cross. Just as God’s siding with the enslaved Israelites is part of God’s rescue of his entire creation, so too white Christians in American should have the courage of their convictions to see how the particular story represented by Black Lives Matter is a story that includes their redemption too.
The theologian Gerhard Forde argues that the way we make any moral progress as Christians- the only way to sanctification- is by a daily dying; that is, by returning over and again to our justification, the news that we’re sinners graced by God.