When people defend state violence, they do so because they believe that it keeps them safe. I recognize this, and I'm glad we have police. I feel much safer knowing that they are there.
However, as we have seen in the many protests across the country in response to police shootings of unarmed black men, women, and boys, many people of color do not feel safe around police. They do not feel protected, they feel afraid, harassed, mistreated, in danger.
The rally cry has become "Black Lives Matter" and in response, some have felt compelled to reply "All Lives Matter." The issue, however, is not that anyone is proposing that other people's lives do not matter. Of course everyone's lives matter -- including the lives of police officers. The Black Lives Matter slogan draws attention to the fact that, in our country, people of color -- and in particular black males -- are systematically treated as if their lives did not matter.
As Christians we should recognize the language of black lives matter. After all, Jesus did not say "blessed is everyone," but "blessed are the poor" (Luke 6:20). He did not say "as you do it unto everyone, you do it unto me," but "as you do it unto the least" (Matthew 25:40). Jesus did not say "love everyone," but "love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44).
Continually Jesus drew our attention not to loving people "in general" but to specifically caring for those we would tend to discount or condemn. Black lives matter is exactly the kind of thing Jesus would say.
Why did Jesus have this emphasis, and why should we? Because then as now, there are people who were marginalized, condemned, and shut out of the system, and the hallmark of Jesus' mission and ministry is all about drawing our attention to them. It has to do with empathy for the "other," for the one we would normally regard the "least."
This is not an issue peripheral to the gospel, or a matter of a few isolated proof texts. It is at the very heart of Jesus' ministry and mission.
That's why it's so important that those of us who are part of the privileged class learn to listen to and to believe those in our society who are typically denied a voice when they tell us about their experiences of mistreatment. We need to hear when they tell us "I can't breathe," both metaphorically and, all too often, literally.
Noting that the cause of death in crucifixion is asphyxiation, Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, drives this point home for us poignantly when she states,
"I can't breathe" could very well have been uttered by Jesus on the cross--Jesus Christ, an oppressed minority under the most powerful government on the planet who was legally put to death by the state. But at least Jesus had a trial.
That puts a new light on Christ's words, "As you do it unto the least of these, my brothers, you do it unto me." The way we treat people of color in our country is how we treat Jesus, who was himself a person of color.
Looking at how Jesus told us to care for the poor, the least, and indeed how he told us to "love our enemies," I am quite certain that he would also emphatically declare black lives matter. If we purport to be Christ's followers, just as we can say "blessed are the poor" even if we are not poor, we should likewise be able to say "black lives matter" even if we are not black.
They matter, according the Jesus, because these are the very ones who are treated as the "least" in our country. They are the ones who are systematically criminalized, otherized, and marginalized. If we care about what Jesus cared about, then we need to care about this.