Oh, Lord, please… not again. Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. When will it stop?
Black lives matter. I know some people bristle at that phrase, even in the wake of such horrendous events. They would prefer to say that everyone’s life matters, and one can hardly argue with that premise, as far as it goes.
But does it go far enough?
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For several weeks now, in response to the COVID quarantine, I’ve been dedicating Sunday posts on this blog to the theme of hope. From time to time, I’ve found myself wondering if the pandemic would be over soon, and we could all return to “normal.” But then other dramas take center stage: in particular, the news explodes with the story of George Floyd, cities explode in violent protest, and new, more severe lockdowns are imposed.
We need hope more than ever. Even if COVID were to disappear tomorrow, to vanish without a trace, there are more virulent forms of human brokenness that have always been with us. We need to know that humanity has a future. We need to know that hatred will not have the final word. We need to know that God has not abandoned the world to violence.
So for anyone who goes by the name of Christian, take note. Whether you know it or not, here is the social world into which you have been reborn:
You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28, CEB)
Paul writes of a new reality: the church shall not be business as usual, shall not be divided by the usual markers of us versus them.
It may be hard for us to imagine how startling these words must have been in Paul’s time; for most of us, for example, “Jew nor Greek” is a distinction that has little meaning. For the infant churches in Galatia, however, that distinction meant everything.
It was already a somewhat strange idea to ask Gentiles to devote themselves to a Jewish Messiah; the leaders of the Jerusalem church needed to be convinced that this was, in fact, a work of God (Acts 15:1-35). But even after the mission to the Gentiles had been approved, there were still Jewish believers who felt the need to pressure the Gentile converts in Galatia to follow Jewish customs — making hash out of the gospel of grace they had believed.
Here’s my point. Paul isn’t addressing just any social distinctions; he’s not just telling Yankees fans to get along with Mets fans (Southern Californians, feel free to substitute the Dodgers and Angels here, or the Lakers and Clippers). Paul is tackling the key distinctions of power and privilege in his day.
Jews and Gentiles, after all, did not share equal status. In the context of the Roman Empire, Jews could be (and were) expelled by the emperor, but — obviously! — not the other way around. In the context of the early church, however, the power relation was somewhat reversed. The Gentiles were the new kids on the block, and subject to the spiritual intimidation of those who might tell them, “You’re not real Jews, so here are the things you have to do if you want to belong.”
The gospel overturned all divisions based on such distinctions. Slave versus free? Think of Paul’s carefully worded letter to Philemon, in which he tried to get a believing slave master to extend grace to a slave who was now his brother in Christ. Male and female? In both Jewish and Gentile cultures, women had inferior status. And though by modern standards Paul is sometimes judged as chauvinist, in his time, he might have been considered a radical feminist for the way he treated women and considered them partners in ministry. Something similar could be said of Jesus himself.
Please note: people didn’t suddenly stop being Jews and Gentiles, slaves or slave masters, men and women when they believed. But Paul was calling all believers to understand themselves as God’s children and therefore brothers and sisters to one another. All had been clothed with Christ; all had to learn to see Christ in one another.
So where do we find hope in this violent, fractured world we live in?
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Again, I know some people object to the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.” Most, I hope, don’t mean to say that black lives don’t matter. They just don’t see why we should single out a particular group in this way.
But think back to what Paul is saying in Galatians. He is addressing distinctions of power and privilege, taken-for-granted distinctions that are undermined by the gospel.
Of course everyone’s life matters — at least it does in theory, from a safe and comfortable distance. Does everyone’s life matter in practice, face to face and on the street? Are all people treated as if they matter, as if they never had to worry about mattering?
Think of the woman who’s had to watch less qualified male colleagues repeatedly get promoted ahead of her. Think of the person working for minimum wage who struggles to make ends meet. Would you tell them not to advocate for themselves because “everyone” matters? Would you say that, knowing that you were above them on the social ladder? Their response (though they might not dare say it) would be, Oh, sure, that’s easy for you to say. You can say that because you obviously matter. You don’t have to question whether you belong. You don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to be treated fairly.
Here’s the harsh reality. As Americans, we live in a country in which Asians have been victims of violence because somehow, people have seen fit to take revenge upon them for COVID. We live in a country in which black parents, even those in the church, have had to teach their children, Baby, when you go in a store by yourself, don’t walk around with your hands in your pockets, or someone’s gonna think you’re shoplifting.
Where do we find hope? We need to see, in the body of Christ, the new social world to which Paul points, in which all who belong to Christ belong to one another, across all the distinctions that divide us from one another.
Throughout Scripture, God is the God of the oppressed and not the oppressor. But there is Oppression with a capital O and oppression with a small o. The tragic story of George Floyd is only the most recent public example of the first. When we hear that story, however, it’s too easy for many of us to think, “That’s terrible! But at least it would never have been my knee on his neck.” And then we get on with our lives.
Yet we are, all of us, guilty of oppression of different kinds and levels. Anytime we use what power and status we have — even if it’s not much — to put others below us, we have sinned. This can be as visible and egregious as racial violence, or as subtle and unrecognized as all the ways in which we treat others with disdain. “They” don’t think or dress or talk the way “we” do; they vote differently at election time; they annoy or frustrate us in some way, or don’t do things the way we think they should.
In short, “they” are not like “us.” And for that reason, even if we don’t realize it, we may see and treat them as inferiors, as lesser. Less worthy of my respect. Less worthy of my time and patience. Less worthy of my consideration or compassion.
This is how we treat people for whom Jesus died. This is even how we treat our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Where is there hope?
The world needs to see signs of hope in the body of Christ, to see a people who see Jesus in one another. Everyone’s life matters to God. And the people of God must treat each other accordingly, beginning with recognizing and repenting of all the ways, large or small, in which we oppress each other with our arrogance.
This is how people will know that the good news is true. This is how people will know that the good news is… well, good. And this is the most tangible sign of hope the church has to offer the world, if we would only learn what it truly means to love God and then love each other accordingly.