What Can We Learn from ‘Black Lives Matter’?
Thanks for listening to another week of the Ask Pastor John podcast. We get a lot of really good questions via email. Of course you can send those to me at askpastorjohn at desiringGod dot org.
And a number of those email questions have come in on the Black Lives Matter movement. Pastor John, I’ll just put the topic out there for now. Talk to us about the Black Lives Matter Movement. What we can we learn from it, and what have you learned from it?
One of the main things to learn from the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement is the need to distinguish between, one, the plain truth of the slogan, two, the ideological origin of its nature, and, three, the strategies of action that it unleashes on the street. We need to distinguish those when we talk about this.
You would think after wrestling with these things for 40 years, these ethnic, racial, and social dynamics, after 40 years that this would be more obvious to me, those distinctions. But they weren’t. I had to be corrected.
So another thing to learn besides those distinctions is, no matter how long you have been at this, like me, no matter how long you have been at this, thinking about the issue, talking about it, writing about it, you can easily fall into unhealthful ways of thinking or talking, which is why ongoing friendships across ethnic lines are important — conversations embedded in friendships are ongoingly important. So let me tell a story now to illustrate my blowing it and the lessons, those two lessons, that emerged from it.
Last year, 2015, there were widespread protests under the banner of “black lives matter,” largely because of some high profile cases in which police killed unarmed black men, a question whether it was warranted or not. And that, of course, is the tip of the iceberg, because there were about 100 of those, and most of them were not high profile in 2015. I saw a statistic that there were 102 unarmed black men killed by police. And that compares in its rate to a rate five times larger than the killing of unarmed whites. So you can get a feel for why there might be some concern and the emergence of something like Black Lives Matter.
And as I was watching all of this happen, I wondered what to think about it, what to say about it, and I googled and found: There is a website called blacklivesmatter.com. And I read it and, oh my goodness, it was awful. I mean, I didn’t like it, because it featured three women who claimed to be the founders of Black Lives Matter — Alicia Garza, Opal Tometti, Patrice Colors — and they self-identified as “queer black women.” And in big, bold banners on their HerStory, not history, HerStory page, they say that they are queer-affirming and transgender-affirming. Well, this did not excite me, as, of course, it wouldn’t most of my Christian black brothers and sisters. And I was so surprised, I tweeted this link so that people could be aware of these roots.
“The best way to be discerning in regards to the complexities of racial matters is to be in regular conversations across ethnic lines so that we see through other eyes.”
Well, a few weeks later I was in Louisville with the Together for the Gospel team, which included Thabiti Anyabwile. And, if you don’t know Thabiti, he is a black pastor in Washington, D.C. and he is, as everyone who knows him realizes, intellectually, theologically, culturally, highly intelligent, highly articulated, highly courageous, highly levelheaded, and not a pushover. And he let me know clearly, that wasn’t helpful.
That kind of thing unqualified, no context, was, in the give-and-take we were having around the table — we did it for two or three days, great friendships there, a lot of blunt in-your-face talk at that meeting.
He helped me see for the mass of ordinary folks, black folks in particular, that website is a nonissue. It doesn’t even exist. They don’t know it is there. It is not driving anything and, therefore, my call now, my learning afresh of needing to make distinctions between, one, a patently true slogan — black lives matter — and, two, ideological roots of a name that may be the real roots, or they may have been co-opted. I mean, the name may have been co-opted.
So there is a double point here for my learning and I hope for all of us who are listening to grow in. First, we need ongoing, regular conversations in the context of friendship across ethnic lines, because otherwise we will see things in a certain way, say things in a certain way that may be naïve at best and hurtful at worst. The best way to be discerning in regards to the complexities of racial matters is to be in regular, normal — not exceptional — normal conversations across ethnic lines so that we see through other eyes.
And the other lesson is that we should distinguish. We learn from these conversations to distinguish the plain truth of the slogan, the ideological nature of its origin, and the strategies of action that may or may not always be the best. Patently black lives matter. That is true. And before — this is another little lesson, maybe. I am just sticking this in — before we say anything like, “All lives matter,” before we say that, we need to pause. Because if you quickly add that, it sounds like a rebuke. It sounds like a minimizing of what was just said. It sounds like the point that was trying to be made isn’t worth being made. So you don’t want to make that point. You don’t want to say that. So you learn that pretty quickly in that conversation if you added, “All lives matter.” Of course that is true, all lives matter, but oh how timing matters and how context matters.
Let me give one more illustration of this friendship issue. I have been meeting about once a month with a pastor friend, a black pastor friend in the Twin Cities. And we have talked over the last months about the case of Jamar Clark here who was killed by the police last November (2015) in the Twin Cities here unarmed. And I have learned things in this conversation with my friend that I would have just never ever been aware of. I have learned things about the sorrows of the black community here in the Twin Cities that I would have never felt without this friendship. Everything would have been seen through a distance, seen through political or ideological eyes. But oh, what a difference to listen to the sorrows of a man pushing 60 who has been at this business for a long time in his community. And to hear him unpack the depths of things that cannot be bought or sold. That can only be received in trust and friendship.
So those are my two or three lessons that I offer to everyone from my blowing it for your consideration. Enjoy some close friendships across ethnic lines and be sure to make distinctions between true slogans, like “Black Lives Matter,” and questionable roots and strategic applications. They are not all the same. And many things need to be said about each one.