A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a Christian who mentioned that he considered himself to be a strong advocate for racial equality. Yet when I asked him about his support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he demurred and said that he believed, "All lives matter."
I am typically wary of relying upon litmus tests and "shibboleths" as a sole means of understanding a person's worldview but it is occasionally the case that an individual's unwillingness to say a particular thing or to say it in a nuanced way speaks volumes about his or her personal beliefs.
Saying #BlackLivesMatter does not diminish the value of other lives, nor does it superimpose black lives as being superior to lives belonging to another race or ethnicity. #BlackLivesMatter is an acknowledgement of the profound ways in which this country (and much of the world) have debased and devalued the life of a black person in comparison to the life of another, typically white, person.
And yet, many Christians hesitate or refuse to say #BlackLivesMatter when one would think that their affinity for a marginalized Jewish man who preached a message of good news for the oppressed would usher them to support such a call for justice.
The theologian Howard Thurman identified this tension in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman describes how the Sadducees (an upper class in Jesus' day laden with privilege and economic security) were astute enough to see that their own position could be perpetuated if they stood firmly against all "revolutionaries and radicals." In other words, when given the choice between retaining their privilege or standing with the oppressed, they chose the former.
At some level, saying #BlackLivesMatter asks Christians (specifically white ones) to turn their back on a system that has been very kind to them and to their churches through the provision of favorable tax laws, access to political power, and an illusion of stability and security underwritten by an elaborate and often unconscious system of racial stratification. Like the Sadducees who were reluctant to stand with the oppressed for fear of losing their privilege, it is easier for some Christians to stand against those they perceive to be "revolutionaries and radicals" for fear of losing their own position of power and forfeiting the vision of what "beloved community" looks like to them. Therefore, #AllLivesMatter becomes the default choice, a phrase not seeking to overturn an unjust system, but rather concerned with maintaining the status quo under the guise of a generic affirmation of all lives.
However, #AllLivesMatter is little more than a cruel and subtle way of sweeping the deprecation of black lives under the rug. #AllLivesMatter is an insidious fiction that suppresses historical fact and contemporary circumstances in order to uphold a deadly system of racial oppression.
And here's the real danger: In refusing to acknowledge our country's horrendous history regarding race and the current disparities existing between different races now, the phrase #AllLivesMatter becomes akin to saying "#BlackLivesMatterButNotAsMuchAsOtherLives." Or, to shorten that hashtag down a bit for the sake of our tweet-tired thumbs, "#WhiteLivesMatterMore."
That's really what we're saying when we refuse to say that #BlackLivesMatter and instead opt for the more sanitized #AllLivesMatter. We're not racist (we have black friends) and we don't want black people (especially if they're the ones that share our political views like Dr. Ben Carson) to be hassled (murdered) by law enforcement officials, but we will refuse to participate in any activity or vocalization of "lives mattering" that involves acknowledging and confronting the disparities in privilege and power existing between people of different races, especially if it requires us to examine our own comfort and complicity with an unjust system.
Sure, some might argue that they don't have to say #BlackLivesMatter because they already live out that principle in their everyday lives. So let's make a deal: if you're a Christian and you find yourself voting for candidates and laws that restrict voting rights for minorities, poison black people's water, deny black folks access to quality healthcare, and uphold a justice system that engages in the mass incarceration of black individuals then by all means go ahead and say #AllLivesMatter.
It's clear what you're trying to say even if it's not clear to you.