Reaching out to the downtrodden and marginalized should be second nature to the church. In recent weeks, we’ve seen images in the media of more hurting, marginalized communities than our hearts can handle. We’ve probably reacted in a number of ways: praying desperately for peace, initiating discussions about systemic racism with our small groups, writing encouraging sentiments on Facebook. No act of compassion in these circumstances is too small.
But while we long to be helpful, not everything we do is beneficial. There are certain behaviors and statements I’ve noticed that minimize the church’s ability to help in these tragic situations.
Along with many requests to “pray for peace” in the wake of the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, I have seen repeated posts that claim, “All Lives Matter.” While this statement, a response to the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, comes from a well-intentioned place, it is nonetheless an unhelpful response to crimes against minority groups.
What, exactly, is harmful about saying “All lives matter”? To reference a popular Facebook meme, it is similar to walking into a funeral home to declare you, too, have felt loss, or attending a breast cancer fundraiser to say, “There are other types of cancer, too.” Central to this line of thinking is the sincere conviction that we are all equal in God’s eyes regardless of skin color, or anything else that separates us here on our fallen planet.
While we are all made in the image of God, thus solidifying the fact that we “matter,” this sort of statement takes away the attention from a specific marginalized group that demands our attention, demands our justice.
Implied in “All lives matter” is a subtle form of erasure. When we are taught to view ourselves as parts of a whole – that is, different parts of one body of Christ – our differences can be minimized. A difference in skin color means a very different journey, a different set of life experiences that many of us who are not black will never understand.
Another common thread in social media posts that attempt to be “helpful” is an insistence that racists and participants in violence against blacks are not “real Christians.” Ideologically speaking, there is truth to this claim: historians believe that Jesus Christ himself, as a citizen of the Middle East, had dark skin. However, this indictment against “fake” Christians sweeps Christianity’s long, dark history of racism under the rug when we should be taking responsibility for it.
“Taking responsibility” doesn’t mean collectively blaming ourselves for our ancestors who might have owned slaves or used Scripture to justify racist views. Rather, “taking responsibility” is simply acknowledging that we are a community of flawed beings who have historically blocked social progress. As Christians, we are not just members of a church, but functioning members of a secular society. Our morals are shaped as much by Scripture as the surrounding culture we live in.
Unsavory as it is to admit, we may passionately worship beside other believers who love Jesus but harbor racist attitudes towards people who do not look like them. Also in our congregations are people of different races with stories of deep hurt inflicted from people who define their lives by the love of Christ.
We owe it to our black brothers and sisters to keep our judgments – “A real Christian would never do that!” to ourselves, and affirm them with one simple, powerful statement: “I believe you, and you matter.”