Which Lives Matter?

Black Lives Matter?  All Lives Matter?  How do we respond to the upheaval around us?  In this unsettling and uncertain time, I know and understand the tensions and discomfort that we have talking about race.  “Well I’m not a racist.” we may say, or, “I didn’t have slaves.”  “I don’t discriminate.”  “Why are people making such a big deal about it?”

As I reflect on my own life, I have to admit that I have benefited greatly from my race and gender, as a white man living in a country historically and currently, dominated by white men.  I know that my experiences are not the same as my black and brown brothers and sisters, but I want to learn and show empathy.  I want to be a partner.  I want to listen.  I want to recognize the subtle and overt ways that I, and people like me, build and perpetuate racial barriers.  I want to see through new eyes.  And as I learn, I will share. 

As a Christian, I want to be a part of the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 ringing true in all of our lives: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I have given them the glory that you gave me that they may be one as we are one.”  Our unity is not that we all look the same, for God created our beautiful differences, rather it’s that our lives are surrendered to the God who created us.  It’s hearts and minds directed to God, led by His Spirit, seeking His Kingdom first.  Also, the glory that God gives us is that He is glorified through us.  So, may God be glorified in all that we do, say, and think.  May God be glorified in our relationships with one another.  May God be glorified as He reconciles us all unto Himself.

Now onto our question at hand – which lives matter?  Of course, when we say something or someone “matters,” that really means we have to do something about it.  Something or someone that matters to us, affects how we live.  And so the question, which lives matter, means we are asking, which lives am I going to have affect my life.  Which lives am I going to do something about? Which lives am I no longer going to ignore?

As we begin to look to God’s Word, we see that yes, every life matters.  As a Christian, I firmly believe that every human life, every race, is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), knit by His hand (Psalm 139:13), and is loved by our Creator (John 3:16).  This pro-life ethic calls me to value and have basic dignity and respect for every person from the unborn baby to the 110-year-old man gasping for his last breaths; to people of all nationalities and races; truly, to “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9).  Now, are we to provide the same care and attention to every human being on the planet simultaneously?  No, none of us can do that, we weren’t meant to, but God has placed us all in families and communities that we do have a greater responsibility for.  So when we continue at this question, and look from a biblical justice perspective, we say that the ones who need defending, the ones that need help, are the lives that we need to pay special attention to.  These lives and situations require some extra attention, some extra focus.  For those of us in the United States, we have to face the truth that black lives have not mattered in the same way and to the same extent that white lives have.  We have to have honest conversations about our history if we are going to move forward well.  These are problems and injustices that we can no longer ignore.

I read about slavery and segregation and thought that it was in the past, that we’ve moved on from that.  We work together now.  And yes, there certainly has been much progress, but the white supremacist notions of black inferiority that were present hundreds of years ago, are still with us.  No, none of us alive today owned black slaves as property, but the attitudes and beliefs that permitted slavery in the first place still linger around us.  Change must happen and it starts in the hearts and minds of each of us.

What follows here is just a small snapshot of racial discrimination and the ways that barriers were put in the way of blacks in the United States.  My hope is that as our eyes are opened, so will our hearts open.  My hope is that God’s justice and unity will guide us.

The first reports of African slaves being brought to, and used on American soil date back to 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia.  Yes, that is before the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  We engaged in this practice of treating humans as property for over 150 years before the Revolutionary War.  Generations of Americans saw blacks as less than whites through the institution of slavery.

{Sidebar:  The sad history of what American colonists and eventually the full US government themselves did to Native Americans is atrocious on its own.  There are certainly related issues of white dominance and supremacy there as well.  Yes, the lives of Native Americans matter.}

So jumping ahead, the colonists win the Revolutionary War and are setting up a new nation, the United States of America.  Sadly, as the constitution was being written and ratified, black people were not considered equal to whites.  How do we know this?  The 3/5 Compromise.  This addition to the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3) worked doubly against blacks, specifically slaves.  It said that for representative purposes in that state, slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, yet they were denied voting rights themselves.  So, it was literally in the Constitution that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives.  But this went on to harm black citizens and further propagate the institution of slavery by actually giving the southern states more representatives than if they could only count free citizens living in their state.  This gave the southern states more voting power in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College for generations.  So that even as anti-slavery sentiment began to grow, especially in the northern states, there was a voting strength in the South that had to be reckoned with.

By the mid 1800’s splits and factions were beginning to form in our county over slavery.  National groups were beginning to split, and three major Christian denominations, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians all split over the course of a couple of decades over slavery.  These divisions in our country began to bubble up in a way that could not be ignored in the lead-up to the 1860 presidential election.  The call for conserving the South and the institution of slavery grew.  The threat of the abolishment of slavery by Abraham Lincoln’s victory was so strong that Southern states began seceding from the Union only one month after his victory.   Very quickly, a new confederacy of southern states leaving the Union was formed, with Jefferson Davis, a former US Senator from Mississippi, as its first, and only, president.

Many elementary students in the US learned that while slavery was a part of the reason for the Civil War, the issue of states’ rights was really central to the struggle.  Even if that were true, it was primarily to preserve the state’s right to keep slaves.  But it’s not true, as the words of the vice-president of the Confederacy declared only weeks before the first shots of the war were fired.  In a speech, that is often referred to as the “Cornerstone Speech,” given in Savannah, GA on March 21, 1861 Alexander Stephens says:

“Our new government is founded upon … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”  (emphasis mine)

He went on to proudly declare that this new nation of the Confederacy would be “the first [nation], in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”  So, yes, the Confederacy was founded upon white supremacy and racial segregation, and the Civil War was fought to preserve these beliefs and the institution of slavery.

But the Union army won the war, slaves were emancipated, and slavery was abolished in the United States.  While it became illegal to own slaves, the white supremacist attitudes and beliefs did not disappear.  Sadly, they only adapted.

In the aftermath of the Civil War and Emancipation, freed slaves, who had worked for years, or their families for generations, with no compensation, were given no ground on which to stand, literally.  The economy, not only of the south, but of the entire nation, was held up by the free labor from slaves.  They now had their freedom, but many had nowhere to go.  There were attempts during reconstruction to provide freed slaves with land to get started on, the promise of “40 acres and a mule,” but these attempts were defeated, leaving many no choice but to return to plantations and work as sharecroppers.  Others were arrested on minor crimes and forced to pay off their sentences with hard labor.

The character and ability of blacks was continually questioned.  They were freed, but they were not welcome.  To make this unwelcome-ness abundantly clear, thousands of blacks were lynched from the late 1800’s into the mid 1900’s.  These mob murders typically needed little instigating, and those involved in the atrocities suffered little to no consequences for their actions.  During this same time, segregation laws and practices, known as “Jim Crow laws,” made sure that whites were provided the better working, education, dining, transportation, and housing opportunities, while pushing aside the needs and desires of their black neighbors.

These difficulties led tens of thousands of black families to flee the south for places in the north and west in the early decades of the 20th century.  While the official presence of racist Jim Crow laws and things like lynchings were happening primarily in the south (though still existent in the north and west), sadly, there was not much of a welcome mat put out in these places either.  For example, one practice happening during this time that worked against black families is known as “redlining.”  Banks and home loan organizations would mark as “undesirable,” the neighborhoods where many black families lived.  Those living within those “red lines” had much greater difficulty, and often impossibility, getting home loans to provide security and build long-term wealth and equity for their families.

By the time many of these laws and practices were officially banned, the damage was already done.  The household equity that the average white family was able to build was exponentially higher that what many black families were able to build.  The loss of potential equity is still being felt in many of our cities and communities.   Sadly, in many places, this was not an accident.  It was not because the black families were less intelligent or less hard working, but rather the same root problems of white supremacy and racial discrimination did not go away.  It continues today in areas like the mass incarceration of blacks.   Black citizens make up around 13% of the overall population in this country, yet they constitute 40% of the prison population.  There is more going on than just saying blacks commit more crimes than other races.  When you put it in the historical context of our nation, we see the same mindsets that say somehow or in some way, blacks are just worse or lesser people.   The stain and pain of this thinking and belief is still with us today.

God spoke through the prophet Amos and said, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream,” (Amos 5:24).  We must look in the mirror of our past with honesty and admit the sin of slavery and racism.  We must recognize the stones and barricades that have been put up to prevent that river of justice from flowing.  We must work together and take up the cause of justice for our black brothers and sisters, whose lives matter greatly to God, and must matter greatly to all of us.

 

References:

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning:  The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Bold Type Books, 2016.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise:  The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.  Zondervan, 2019.

“Cornerstone” Speech, Alexander H. Stephens | March 21,1861. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/.  Accessed 07/01/2020.

 

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