Over the past few weeks, we have observed all manner of protests, parades and posturing in response to the wrongful deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement officers and citizens. As a result, various levels of government have begun the process of enacting legislation aimed at reforming police policies and procedures. While these practical responses appear to address a problem, they don’t seem to address the central concern of “black lives matter”. These policy changes should serve to benefit the community as a whole, but don’t do anything to address racism. The energy behind all of the protests is beginning to wane, and many communities are working at cleaning up the mess and getting back to “normal”, but one should ask whether there has really been a change in regard to racism in this country. I typically strive to be an optimist, but I am doubtful in this case. I recognize that these issues are complex, and so I in no way think what I offer here is either exhaustive or definitive. I do believe it is important to be part of the conversation, and my thoughts here point to what I see as a vacuum in the discussions on this issue. I think there are underlying forces in our culture which resist the removal of racism from our midst.
In our contemporary culture, we are being swept away by underlying currents – a veritable riptide. Unless we are rescued from these currents, we are in danger of being pulled out to sea. One of these currents is the prevailing post-truth narrative in which feelings have been elevated above facts. It does not deny the existence of facts, but our convictions and motivations are determined by our feelings instead of facts. Facts are only useful if they happen to align with our feelings. This has resulted in tremendous divisiveness in our country. It has resulted in tribalism as people gather under banners of various feelings with everyone believing their feeling is more important than another’s. Sadly, in this state of affairs, the feeling or opinion which will win out is the one held by the group with the loudest voice – with the most power. In our present state of civil unrest, the phrase “black lives matter” rings out as only one more opinion vying for attention.
Another current which moves along with this one is the over reliance upon science to provide us with answers. Owing to the innumerable successes tallied by science in the last century, our culture has begun to view science as the ultimate source of truth – what has come to be known as scientism. This is a burden too great for science to carry. The scientific endeavor is limited to helping us discover things about our world and how things work. It generates a lot of information, but it can’t tell us what to do with all that information. We have used science to help us solve immediate problems (sometimes creating more problems), but science is unable to tell us what we ought to do – it is unable to give us direction for the long term. Unfortunately, our culture has largely bought into a “scientific” worldview dominated by naturalism.
Through these lenses, any one person’s greatest concern is their own survival and happiness, and the lives of other people are a matter of utility.
As we look at life through the lenses of naturalism given to us by science (evolution being one of its chief dogmas), we fail to see life as having any intrinsic value. Every different thing in the universe is merely a bunch of atoms in various arrangements which just happened to come into existence. One cluster of atoms is no more important than another. Through these lenses, any one person’s greatest concern is their own survival and happiness, and the lives of other people are a matter of utility. This vision of the world has historically helped promote great injustices against humanity including eugenics, genocide and every form of racism. This does not eliminate the usefulness of science, but it is a signal to us that we cannot depend on science to give us the necessary grounding for what we sense in our hearts to be the right thing.
Rising out of our present unrest is a desire for a shift in culture in which every manner of racism is rooted out and replaced with a genuine appreciation for all human life. Not just racial tolerance, but genuine racial reconciliation. This in turn should set a course for turning back the systemic racism in our culture. Black lives have come into sharp focus because of the ongoing injustices aimed at the black community – we can’t be convinced that all lives matter until we clearly see that black lives matter. But this desire is muted by the currents of scientism and post-truth thinking which move us into an overwhelming state of indifference. It is similar to what Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
So, what needs to happen in order for us to move forward and make meaningful progress against racism? What can move us out from under our individual banners and unite for a righteous cause? Protests and petitions will capture people’s attention for a while, and some conciliatory legislation may emerge, but under our current state of affairs, those who have been conditioned to be racist will be unmoved. Black lives will not really matter unless that truth is grounded in a greater truth. It is insufficient to chant “black lives matter” unless people can clearly articulate and internalize why that is so. No meaningful change can happen unless we submit ourselves to certain undeniable facts – to objective truths – which take control of our feelings (and not the other way around). Unless we do so, we will be left adrift by these currents in our modern culture.
I suggest there is a way to stem this tide and rescue us not only from indifference, but from the dehumanization of racism as well. First and foremost, we need to strongly affirm that God exists and we are accountable to him. He has created all people in his image, and are the object of his sacrificial love. This is the truth that substantiated the claim in this country’s declaration of independence that “all men are created equal”, and warranted the constitutional objective to “establish justice.” Together, these prompted Martin Luther King, Jr. to write, “We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.” To be clear, black lives matter because black lives were made in the image of God.
The devaluing of any person is a great offence to God.
Secondly, all people are called to follow God in his mandate: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) These two go together – they are inseparable. Without God, there is no grounding for objective morality – behavior is only based on expediency and personal preferences – loving your neighbor would only be a matter of convenience. Conversely, it makes no sense to say you love God if you don’t love your neighbor. The devaluing of any person is a great offence to God. He calls us to be people of action and to advocate for justice – to help the poor and oppressed – even to “the least of these”. Justice should be of great concern to everyone. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
However, the changes which need to occur in our country to address injustice will not happen by themselves. King went on to say, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” To be clear, the vision hoped for in “black lives matter” cannot be accomplished merely with human effort because it requires a change in the human heart. I affirm that it is better to do something than nothing, but what is happening now is a band-aid approach which fails to recognize root causes. This movement will gain no traction unless it is grounded in the truth and reconciling power of the gospel. Without that, the best we can do is “keep the peace”. But if people will turn their hearts away from enamored self-interest, and toward the God who made them, perhaps we can realize what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote over fifty years ago:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
 All quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. in this blog came from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which he wrote on April 16th, 1963. The letter was addressed to pastors of churches (and their congregations) challenging them to stand against the status quo, and stand on the side of truth.