When “All” Means None
Dear Fellow White Folk—especially (but not only) White Christians:
As a Midwestern Lutheran, I have been to many potlucks. Casseroles and Jell-O salads abound. At their best, potlucks embody a community meal in which everyone contributes, feels at home, has fun, and has their fill.
But sometimes people at the front of the line overestimate the abundance—leaving those near the end with carrot sticks and broccoli crowns. Perhaps the “early eaters” assume that the five loaves and two fishes will again miraculously multiply.
Maybe Jesus had a Mesopotamian equivalent of a potluck in mind in switching up the order: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt.19:30 NRSV). And perhaps he was riffing off of his mother’s Magnificat: “The Lord . . . has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV).
For a solid year, I have heard too many white brothers and sisters denigrate the slogan—and the movement— “Black Lives Matter.” Many refuse to utter the words because of how strongly they recoil at the phrase. See, for example, Full Frontal field interviewers talking with Republican delegates in Ohio.
Granted, Samantha Bee’s show (Full Frontal) is political commentary and humor, not journalism. Yet, the interviews make an illuminating point: When those of us (of any political affiliation) who benefit from racial privilege fail to question assumptions and are unwilling to learn from people of other racial backgrounds, we cut ourselves off from vital sources of moral knowledge.
To illustrate: How can you learn what locusts are like if you refuse to listen to the people who have the most first-hand knowledge?—who have grappled and survived with locusts for years, even generations?
White privilege and racism in the U.S. are this kind of pernicious pest.
Here is the thing: Being put last in line; being unnamed in accounts of your life (or death)—especially when it happens repeatedly—makes a person and people feel inconsequential and invisible. Being told there is “enough for all” and then being left with crusty leftovers eats away at self-esteem. Being told “all are created in God’s image” and then having your particular life—and those of friends and family—continually, often violently, disrespected creates a confounding disconnect.
Similarly, insistently lecturing hurting people that “everyone matters” when their specific hearts are bleeding conveys just the opposite message: “Other lives matter; yours does not. Others are children of God; you are not.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Several of those interviewed in the Full Frontal segment show that their minds are not as made up as it may first appear. They (unlike several of their elected leaders such as Iowa Rep. Steve King) begin to acknowledge the complexity. One Black delegate wrestles with the tension of repeating “all lives matter” when asked how many times he has been stopped by police.
As a white Christian, when I affirm “Black Lives Matter” I mean “I see you. Your concrete, embodied life matters to me.” White folk, we must learn and say the names of the victims of tragically-flawed, predominately-white perception and action: Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Walter Scott, Lacquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile. . . We need to learn the fullness of their lives and come to know the communities and families who grieve them. We need to listen to Charles Kinsey who was wrongly shot by police while caring for a man with autism just last week. And we need to ask soul-searching questions in light of the July 27th, 2016 decision to drop all remaining charges with respect to Freddie Gray’s death while in policy custody.
Doing so does not negate that particular other lives matter—police, white, immigrant, women’s, Latino, GLBTQ, disabled, children’s, incarcerated, etc. Certainly, many different groups suffer from a lack of public attention and care. However some groups are more vulnerable than others. As just one example, in 2015, police officers killed nearly 1,000 people while 42 officers were killed by gunfire in the line of duty.
Ultimately, it is not about pitting or elevating one hurt against another. Rather, the urgent point is that we only get to universal justice by starting with particular acts of justice and love. We get to human rights through paying attention to specific lives at risk.
When you see someone hurting, you don’t say, “God loves everyone.” You say, “God loves you! You matter! I see you. I will not turn a blind eye. I will respond.” Isn’t that what we mean by the Christian camp fire song, “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love”?
My nine-year-old son and I marched with our church in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade, just two weeks after the Orlando slaughter of 49 beautiful and beloved people—gay and straight, female and male. So many young, Black and Brown lives mowed down. . . My son gleefully high-fived a thousand or more along the three-mile route. We held up a signs: “Disharm Hate: VOTE!” and “Black, Brown, Immigrant, GLBTQ Justice!” He continued to call out “You can make a difference!” long after he was hoarse. Let’s not make him a liar.
White sisters and brothers, we can make a difference—in this election and in our society’s fraught race relations. But we can only do this if are courageous enough to listen deeply, to reflect self-critically, and to act concretely in solidarity with those who know intimately the ugly side of locusts.
Aana Marie Vigen is an Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Loyola University Chicago. She is passionate about advocacy and education on global climate change and Christian moral agency. She is also passionate about her local congregation, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA). And she loves teaching and living in Rogers Park with her spouse and son. Both this church and her family help her have–and enact–hope in the world. She focuses most of scholarly work on socio-economic and racial-ethnic inequalities in health and healthcare (in the U.S. and globally). She is also is interested in: the relation between ecological health and human health; ethnographic methods in Christian ethics; the intersection of Christian Social Ethics & Bioethics; Protestant Ethics; Feminist Ethics; White Anti-Racism. If you want to know what Aana has written, here are a couple of highlights: She is the author of Women, Ethics, and Inequality in U.S. Healthcare: “To Count among the Living”. In addition, she co-authored (with Christian Scharen) Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics and co-edited (with Patricia Beattie Jung) God, Science, Sex, Gender: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics.