Privilege Matters, Part 1
The slogan “black lives matter” and the phrase “white privilege” are causing some Christians to see red. These believers are wary of political ideologies associated with the BLM movement, and they’re weary from what feels like an incessant barrage of false accusations of guilt combined with prejudiced assumptions about their favored social status. These expressions which seem to incite suspicion and resentment are themselves born of pain; our reaction to them might reveal some of the reasons for that anguish and give insight as to how we may be contributing to it. But before we cry “confirmation bias!” or “hypocrisy!” (how dare someone who doesn’t know me judge my “privilege” or claim I’m complicit in crimes I never committed?!), Scripture commends us to listen to, with a disposition to help, those who are crying out in sorrow and anger for justice.
Our Lord commands quickness to listen (James 1:19) and he tells us that true listening results in action (James 1:22). “Hold on,” we might protest. “When James tells us to put what we hear into action, he’s not talking about politically suspect slogans and prejudiced social theories; he’s talking about God’s word.” Precisely. That’s exactly the point. As we look to God’s word to judge prevalent reactions and rhetoric related to these popular expressions, all Christians, especially Reformed Christians, have reason to be concerned. Are our responses faithful to Christ’s heart and the God-honoring, neighbor-loving commands which flow from it? This first entry will engage that question as it connects to the cultural phenomena of “Black Lives Matter.”
With BLM, Christian concern must be directed first and foremost to the people making this statement, protesting with it, or simply uttering it as a cry of despair. “Black lives matter!” is, in itself, not only an innocuous claim but a statement of absolute, ontological, moral truth. It is a claim implicitly made on page one – page one! – of God’s holy word (Genesis 1:26-27). The foundation upon which this value claim properly rests and rises, that every human being bears God’s image, is stressed throughout Scripture (Genesis 9, Exodus 20, James 2 and 3). So what does it tell us when, as Bible believers, our first or strongest response to the statement is defensiveness, reacting as if we or other kinds of people have been insulted or excluded?
What does it say of us when we respond to, indeed when we reprimand the claimant with the admonishment that “all lives matter” – as if the black person was even close to implying anything near a denial of such? How frustrating, how defeating, how dehumanizing must it feel to not even be able to say that the lives of people like you actually matter without being corrected or condescendingly reminded of the very truth about which you are pleading for full, consistent application! How galling must it be to have the truth you’re urging weaponized against you as a rebuke? How exhausting must it be to have to constantly explain yourself, having conversations, creating memes and protest signs to explain that your succinct claim to basic human dignity is not offensive? As hip hop artist Shai Linne writes in a poignant personal reflection on the murder of George Floyd, “One of the most hurtful things we can do is to make mourners justify their pain.” The spirit of Job’s ill-advised counselors seems to be alive and well in prevalent reactions to mournful people crying out for basic biblical truth to be fully applied in society.
But what about the unbiblical ideologies involved in the BLM official organization?Here is an extended discussion highlighting such concerns and warning of the dangers of identifying with the organization. At the same time, Carlos Whittaker offers a brief, heartfelt, utterly reasonable response to that concern, which includes the reminder that the BLM movement does not own the statement “black lives matter.” For Mr. Whittaker and for so many others who've gone public with it, and for personal friends of mine from all over the political and religious spectrum, the statement transcends the political activist organization; it's personal, powerful, and empowering to them. So here's a genuine, not a rhetorical, question: what do we lose, or what might we gain, for sympathizing with and perhaps even uttering currently controversial statements of eternal biblical truth in solidarity with pained image-bearers? Do orthodox Christians typically shy away from biblically faithful statements because cults have co-opted them? Or do we usually use the equivocation as an opportunity to demonstrate Scripture's true teaching? Why wouldn't we do this with "black lives matter"?
More pointedly, why must those on the ethnic outside of the statement's subject matter, those who cringe at it, dictate the terms of its discourse? Why must any of us seize, or cede to dubious political doctrines, definitional sovereignty in this public conversation? Especially when so many who embrace the statement have exercised extraordinary patience and kindly taken such great pains to explain precisely what they do and do not mean by the statement? Do not our retorts (protests?) against the expression, with instructive irony, perhaps suggest if not prove some of what those who frequently employ the expression are trying to say?
If we are that morally and personally pained at the mere statement; if we immediately spy within it an insult based on exclusion; if we instinctively suspect that a statement of first principles in biblical anthropology is actually a subversive secularist statement of hypocritical racial prioritizing; then we sensitive souls should be the very first people who speak up in support of those who are overtly and viciously insulted, slandered, and denigrated - or suffocated to death on a city street. And we should be the very last people to lecture others who have very good reason to suspect that they and people like them are being denied the full application of the basic dignity which God’s word attributes to them at the very beginning of his book. Regardless of political affiliation (as if that matters materially to the principle), they are crying out for the full personal experience – or in some cases even the semblance - of the very principles some of us hold to with such aggressive defensiveness and easily offended entitlement. We Bible believers should be their supporters, not their stumbling blocks.
Sometimes we can’t see the way we might be tripping justice-seekers up rather than leveling their path as Christ would require of us (Micah 6:8). Our personal prejudices are by definition hard to recognize – they're too close for us to see clearly. So here’s an admittedly sharp question, hopefully incisive and not injurious, asked with Reformed believers especially in mind. It's meant to probe for a subtly present disposition to avoid rather than truly engage pressing matters, or at least to expose practices which subtly encourage or reinforce that distancing.
When we hear the expression “black lives matter” or consider current cultural movements connected to it in general, which do we seek out first, more eagerly and attentively? The stories and explanations of the claimants themselves, or Christian apologetics videos on “cultural Marxism” and the like? The latter can be very helpful, but should not be considered a substitute for, much less a reason to ignore, commentary coming straight from the source, people who for a potentially wide variety of reasons may find the expression helpful and heartening. Even good academic study habits, which Reformed Christians tend to stress in theological learning, require first a deep-dive study into original sources, then personal reflection and critique, and then and only then the investigation of secondary-source commentary, commendation and critique. This approach honors the ninth-commandment by allowing image-bearers to speak for themselves. It challenges us to hear and understand them as directly as possible, before we're taught by others (perhaps quite accurately if they’ve followed the same principles) how we should think of what’s being said and why. As believers, our standard for engaging other image-bearers ought to be much higher than the best practices of good academia, but they certainly should be no less.
Sure, we may not be given toward deep-dive studies, and may not have enough time for all that they entail. But then we should hold our opinions with tenacity proportionate to the effort we've exerted to understand the issues. But since Christians are to make time on the Lord's Day for "acts of mercy," what a great opportunity this would be for pastors to preach God's word applied to such subjects, having done the deep-dive study necessary to honor the ninth commandment, and for church groups to study these matters, together and preferably with those for whom the statement we're considering is precious and powerful. Bible believing church leaders and laity ought to be first in line for such learning by way of listening and for sympathetic studying.
To investigate an idea or an ideology is to look into the souls of those who bear the image of the true and living God. Thus, it is a sacred task, a sacred trust; it calls for open-minded, full-hearted engagement in keeping with God’s holy commands (Exodus 20; Matthew 22:37-40). We must love our neighbors by sincerely, substantially listening to them and, without ungodly fear of harmful social consequence, stand and walk with them to the extent that Christ our merciful King would compel us by way of his loving law (Matthew 5-7).
None of this is to say that we must adopt a particular popular expression lest we dishonor those urging us to affirm it. But that’s the beauty of Christian liberty. Christ purchased this privilege for us so that we can, without fear of judgment, serve others, especially the downtrodden (James 2). The statement "black lives matter" may have been sacrificed by some to ideological idols, but it's still good meat for personal ministry.
Ever in tandem with biblical discretion (James 3), Christian liberty compels us to tangibly love our neighbor in keeping with God’s law (1 John 3:17), which requires every effort to love our neighbor selflessly, and sometimes sacrificially. Surely the Samaritan of whom Jesus tells us was risking much more in a violently prejudiced society than many of us would be by affirming publicly and practicing privately the biblical truth that black lives matter (Luke 10, John 4). And of course, Jesus himself is the perfect personification of this kind of neighbor-loving courage - drawn from, driven and defined first by love for the true and living God - which is willing to endure the most horrific personal consequences of such love (Luke 9:53).
Yes, given the political ideologies present in the present complex of social movements and personal pain, we might be the victims of unjust inferences should we employ the phrase, perhaps chanting "black lives matter here!" as my son and I did this past weekend during a peaceful protest in our town. But those negatives themselves might add up to help us understand more fully what it’s like to be slandered and subject to prejudice. It can help us bear another image-bearer’s burden, and maybe even lighten it a little. And more generally, we should be mindful that unsound thought systems often arise from someone's image-bearing observance of human suffering and their image-bearing desire to actually do something about it. That these image-bearing instincts may seek sustenance from radically unbiblical philosophies, especially when they take deep root and rise in places where the gospel is allegedly known, may be due in large part to the deaf ear materially and culturally comfortable Christians have turned toward the hurting.
Instead of suspiciously avoiding justice-seeking movements, why not carefully and compassionately engage their advocates in the name of the only human being in whom true justice is perfectly personified and by whom justice and peace can and do embrace (Psalm 85, John 14, Romans 3, Ephesians 2)? Are our reasons for political and philosophical suspicion heavy enough to outweigh the neighbor-loving good that can be done in Jesus’ name by embracing or at least lovingly engaging as a point of contact a statement that means so much to so many hurting people?
We can be both theologically discerning and socially active; in fact, as James’s whole letter directs us, true theological discernment requires social action. Social action as I’m using the phrase does not require public action. It simply indicates action that is socially consequential - whether it's serving only one other person behind the scenes in quiet faithfulness or more noticeably for a neighborhood or nation for whom public evidence of active Christian love and integrity are so desperately needed.
It is sad, and telling, when we believers in Christ spend so much effort and time on the periphery of issues (sometimes purposely, it seems) rather than diving in directly with devotion and discretion befitting disciples of the one who was willingly crucified for us. Behind today’s controversies are people, image-bearers, longing for the full and consistent application of what God stipulates on the first page of Scripture belongs to every human being. One dear elder sister in Christ, who has devoted her life to the study and service of people and peoples culturally quite different from her - and a member of a VERY conservative church - was present for the aforementioned protest in my town. When someone commented on how nice it was to see here there, she responded, simply and humbly, “How could I not come?”
Whatever the means of practical engagement most suited to our situation and sphere of influence, we Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians must put feet to our faith. We must put down our defensiveness and fear. We must walk directly with the humble confidence of full Christian freedom into the most pressing matters of our times, moving intentionally toward the fellow image-bearers who are, historically and today, hurting so deeply.
How can we not? Does the love of Christ not compel us?