Black Lives Matter More than a Slogan

UU Annapolis Youth lead a marching crowd carrying Black Lives Matter Banner

The statement Black Lives Matter might be hard to hear because it floats. It is a bit of hyperbole. There is no counter point, no balancing narrative. This is something our culture is not accustomed to. We are used to having a good guy and a bad guy, a protagonist and an antagonist.

We’ve seen people try to find a counter balance. There have been efforts to say you either support black lives or all lives, you either support black lives or police lives. It’s natural to want a counter balance, to find a way to have everything stand against something else. One of the thing Unitarian Universalism has forced me to work on is finding a way to live with ambiguity, to live with statements that are contradictory, that are paradoxical. This church has asked me to engage with statements and realities that make me uncomfortable because they don’t fit into the box I had already created for them.

When I feel the pull to say that all lives matter it’s because I feel uncomfortable and I want to lower my discomfort. So why do I feel uncomfortable? Deep down I feel embarrassed and sad and helpless that there needs to be this statement.

When I say I’m hungry, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It implies that I haven’t eaten in a while. If I say it right after eating it implies the food wasn’t adequate. If I say it while a dinner guest it implies that my host hasn’t fed me. If a child says it to a police officer or teacher it implies that her/his parents have not provided enough food.

To have to say Black Lives Matter implies that otherwise they don’t matter. When I feel a tendency to say All Lives Matter, or to make the statement into an adversarial relationship with police, I’m trying to alleviate my discomfort about the implication that in our status quo black lives don’t matter.

But the devaluing of people of color is all around us. I serve in Louisiana. In Louisiana we have more people imprisoned per capita than anywhere in the world. These mostly black men are forced to pick cotton at gunpoint as a part of their prison sentence. Since I started serving in Baton Rouge in 2012, three hospitals have closed – all in the black half of town.

It doesn’t make us bad people that these examples are everywhere. It makes it a thing that is, but ignoring it isn’t going to make us healthier. It isn’t going to bring about the justice all people deserve. Because, especially where I serve in Louisiana, injustice towards African Americans seems so widespread, I’m prone to ignore it. I’m prone to find other explanations and rationalizations to alleviate my own feelings of sadness and anger.

If you have the sign hanging from your church, members may wonder what to say when someone asks why we have Black Lives Matter on our sign? My advice to you is not to answer them at first. Become genuinely curious about why they are asking. Help them to do some of the discernment they need to do about this statement. Ask them why they are curious: What they think it means, what they hear, what they worry about it implying. Do they hear that Black Lives Matter More or that Only Black Lives Matter?

Use their question as an opportunity to become a Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Pastor. Use it as an opportunity to get to know them and what they think and value. By doing that, they can start exploring parts of themselves and their culture that have been unsafe to explore.

Saying that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that other lives are valued less, it just means that there is a group of people who for years have been undervalued and exploited and its time we stop. If there was an epidemic of elderly people in nursing homes being abused in Louisiana and we put up a sign on our church that said “Senior Citizens Matter” it doesn’t mean that we don’t think children matter.

I’m happy to say that many Unitarian Universalist churches have embraced this message. Many of them have put up banners. Quite a few of our churches have had their signs defaced. It’s almost become a source of pride.

Part of my frustration with the way many national UUs have embraced the movement is that they seem to assume this is a simple thing to fix. Maybe we’ve become too complacent because we had so much and such quick success regarding LGBT rights and specifically marriage equality; maybe it’s because many Unitarian Universalist churches are located in places that are intentionally segregated; maybe it’s because many Unitarian Universalists don’t want to look at ways that our own religion has perpetuated cultural supremacy and devalued black people, but I’m not sure everyone who embraces this slogan understand how long a march this is.

The entire nation is founded on the enslavement of Africans. I often complain when I read about plantations glossing over their bloody and brutal use of enslaved people, but I didn’t object once during a tour of the United States Capital building when they neglected to mention that it was built by the enslaved. The main engine for this country’s economic growth, namely cotton, came directly off of the backs of enslaved people.

It’s written into our very constitution. The constitution originally claimed that enslaved people were 3/5ths of a person. So I did some math this week. In America black people represent 13% of the total population. Yet their representation in congress is 7.56%. If you round that up, its 8%, 3/5 of 13% is 8%.

All of these arguments and facts and figures aren’t what are going to convince people. I serve in the south and many southern white people carry tremendous guilt, shame and feelings of helplessness. I’ve found that bludgeoning them with facts and figures just pushes them further into theological and cultural despair.

I quickly learned when I returned home to serve in the south that many white Louisianians carry a disproportionate share of the guilt and shame. This is because much of the country has rewritten the history to make slavery, Jim Crow, and racism a southern problem.

I’ve seen many Unitarian Universalists perpetuate this mythology of the racist south as a means of absolving themselves of their own implications in racist systems. Reverend Mark Morrison Reed said in his book Selma Awakening, “When we pinpoint the locations and relocations of their congregations, analyze their religious education materials and hymnbooks, dissect the cultural proclivities of the burgeoning fellowships, add up the number of African Americans in leadership positions, and survey the experiences of the African-American ministers, we see clearly that the espoused values of Universalists, Unitarians, and Unitarian Universalists were rarely matched by their values in practice.”

Deep down (even in the strongest resistance to the Black Lives Matter movement) I see a deep sadness and anger for the sins of this country. Some people are able to cope with this trauma in positive ways and others cope in unhealthy ways, but we are all fighting against the same source. Sometimes those who argue the most rigorously against justice are the ones who yearn for it the most.

With the large number of news stories that have popped up recently about unarmed black people being killed it’s natural to ask the question “where is God in all of this?” I don’t look for god in the tragedy. I look for God in the response. I see God as that pull towards justice. Each generation pulls us a little closer to justice. So every generation, God gets a little more just.

I don’t believe there has been an uptick in violence against people of African descent. If we were to narrow in on any period in the last 500 years, there was a disturbing amount of violence towards black people. What is so amazing to me about the Black Lives Matter movement and whatever is going on right now in our larger culture, is that people in the larger American landscape are finally hearing about the abuses. I don’t know if we as a culture are finally far enough away from slavery to start engaging with the injustice, or if we’ve finally hit a critical mass, but it feels like something is changing. Looking for God in the justice and the progress is where I find the hope.

One of the things the Black Lives Matter movement has taught me is there are dramatic regional differences to injustice and racism. And while I can stand in support, I have to remember that I don’t always know the context.

Within the Louisiana context, there are countless instances of black lives not being values. The entire country needed Louisiana to devalue black bodies so that it could achieve unparalleled economic gain. But it has to end.

I’m proud to serve a church that was kicked out of some of its earliest homes because it dared to hold integrated meetings, that it dared talk about the violence black people faced. I’m proud to serve a congregation that is talking about race in Louisiana – not from a guilt and shame perspective, but with an eye towards reconciliation, healing and justice.

I say as your pastor that no matter what you go through in this life, you are loved, you are worthy. I am not saying that black lives matter more than your life. I am not saying that there is only so much love and justice to go around. I am saying that until black people know justice, no one will know justice. To borrow from our Universalist ancestors, none are saved until all are saved.

We aren’t there yet. We aren’t where we deserve to be. We aren’t yet living in the world we were promised at our birth, but we will get there. Each day we meet fear and anger with love we bend the arc a little closer to justice.