A Letter to My Fellow White Christians about #BlackLivesMatter

blacklivesmatterDear Fellow White Christians,

Here’s the deal: I’m a little confused.

I hear some of you talk about why you don’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and I don’t get it! So I thought I’d talk about it in a blog post (especially since I already talked about it on Facebook, so consider this a more organized recapturing of a great conversation with some of you, friends). First off, the basics…

Don’t ALL lives matter?

Or, as presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently commented, “When I hear people scream, ‘black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. … I think he’d [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

To this I say, yes, he would be appalled — we just need to get on the same page about which “some lives” are being elevated more than others!

When I think about the question “What are black lives worth?” the first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in U.S. History class — the 3/5 clause written into the U.S. Constitution. According to our most sacred founding document, black lives are literally worth just over one half of white lives.

The second thing I think of — again from history class — is slavery. In 1860, an enslaved black person’s life was valued at around $800, or around $130,000 in today’s currency. (I thought that sounded like a large sum — then I thought about how I would feel if someone offered to pay me $130,000 in exchange for unlimited physical labor for my whole life and the right to separate me from my husband and family at their convenience. I no longer find it a large sum.)

To me, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is about reminding the rest of us that black people are created in the image of God, too. Consider this powerful paragraph from a New York Times article I posted earlier today:

The Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police, and is of a piece with this history [of the Civil Rights Movement]. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. (emphasis added)

Let me say that again: saying that Black Lives Matter DOES NOT MEAN that “other” lives don’t matter. It simply seeks to correct the false belief, prevalently visible throughout our country’s history, that black lives matter less by speaking the truth even louder: in other words, not just BLACK lives matter, but Black lives DO matter!

But what about BLM’s questionable methods?

Okay, you may say, fine — a noble goal. But this just isn’t the same as the Civil Rights movement. That was about respectable, peaceful protest, and these folks’ methods are rude and not okay.

Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. Even this black former Civil Rights activist has some questions about BLM’s methods and leadership. That said, here are two thoughts I would like you to consider as you continue to form and inform your opinion:

1. Practice listening to black people.

I’m not black — and neither are you, dear fellow white Christian. It’s not our movement. So when I am talking about BLM, I defer to and try hard to LISTEN to black people, especially before I open my big mouth and start to tell other people how to run their movement. Just like that Jesus guy. He was really good at listening to people’s pain and asking thoughtful questions before offering his opinion.

Additionally, I implore you to stay away from sensationalist exaggerations like that Dr. King would be “appalled” or “rolling in his grave.” First of all, this is just an emotion-yanking tactic to try to invoke a sense of violation of one of our most beloved and popular-to-invoke figures. Secondly, remember that the reason we don’t actually know what Dr. King would think is that he was shot by a white supremacist. As this thoughtful and hard-hitting reflection by a black activist puts it, “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.” So next time you think of invoking Dr. King’s ghost on a black activist, maybe consider another tactic instead. Remember, the authorities on being black in America are black people. So even when it feels hard, even when it feels uncomfortable, cultivate an attitude of listening, not scolding.

2. Remember that the black community is NOT monolithic.

Just like the white community, the Christian community, the Minnesota community, etc etc, black people often disagree with each other! (Shocking, I know.) Some black people will support BLM’s methods and some won’t, but they are entitled to their opinions! If someone thinks interrupting political candidates on stage is a good idea, go for it! If someone thinks that’s rude and won’t get the movement anywhere, more power to ’em! This debate and disagreement is part of making our way forward together, and I think it’s unreasonable for us white folks to hold the BLM movement to standards so high as to not allow for normal growing pains and disagreement as BLM finds their way.

So you’re anti-cop? Don’t Blue Lives Matter?

No! First of all, let me state very clearly: killing police officers is not okay.

Police perform a difficult and invaluable function in our society, and I think it’s appropriate that cop-killers receive harsh punishments in our society. THAT BEING SAID…

Using “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” or saying that “cops are now being killed indiscriminately” (as one of my friends stated) is a falsehood and gross misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, this site that tracks the deaths of law enforcement officers says that deaths of officers in the US due to gun violence in 2015 total 24 and are DOWN 20% since last year. Overall line-of-duty deaths total 83 and are down 2% from last year. Hardly an escalation to “indiscriminate” open season on police!

By contrast, The Guardian estimates that police in the US have killed upwards of 500 people this year so far. Additionally, in examining a claim that “police kill more whites than blacks”, Politifact found that while this claim is true, it’s true only because whites make up more than 50% of people in the US, and in fact, “When comparing death rates, blacks are about three times more likely than whites to die in a confrontation with police.” 

SO — again, I reiterate that I am saddened by the deaths of police doing their best to “serve and protect” — this should not happen. I do NOT support hatred towards police (nor does BLM) and I support efforts to bring officers home safely and alive from their rounds of duty. But bringing this up as a way to minimize or dismiss claims about the systemic bias against black people by our society and by our law enforcement practices is misleading and ignores the very real concerns of the BLM movement about consistently high rates of black deaths by police officer in comparison to other racial groups.

What about BLM telling black people to kill white people?

After a lot of Googling, I found one article from a sort of questionable-looking source I’ve never heard of claiming that the “leaders” of BLM had told their followers to “kill a white person, hang them from a tree, upload a pic to social media”. Apparently this occurred shortly before the tragic shooting of two young news professionals in Virginia — the implication being that BLM is implicitly (or explicitly) responsible for the death of these two young people.

Two things.

First, look at the names of the “main ring-leaders” this site lists: Carol “Sunshine” Sullivan, Nocturnus Libertus (Sierra McGrone), Palmentto Star, and Malcom Jamahl Whitehead. Now, look at the names of the founders of the BLM movement, according to Wikipedia, the BLM website, and an article by the Associated PressOpal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Notice anything? Hint: the names don’t match. It’s okay to be alarmed that somewhere, a couple of black people are making threatening statements about killing white people. BUT, it’s also important to recognize that most groups have radical extremists. As my friend on Facebook aptly pointed out, “It’s like pro-life people killing abortionists, it tarnishes the message.” Yes, friend — yes, it does. Which is why generally these extremists — both these couple black people talking about killing white people on the radio and the few pro-life people who advocate murdering abortion doctors — are generally viewed as extremists, and NOT as representatives of the movement at large. Ergo, if you are pro-life, you have just as much moral ground to support that cause as BLM advocates have to support theirs — you both have the preservation of undervalued life as your core goal, and you both have tiny splinter groups of extremists who think that taking life is an appropriate way to achieve that goal. (In fact, I find that the BLM movement should align perfectly well with conservative Christian views about the sanctity of life — one of the most challenging Christians I know is a deeply faithful and conservative black pastor who is a staunch pro-life advocate as well as a staunch #BlackLivesMatter supporter.)

Secondly, while receiving threats of being killed, hung from a tree, and photographed simply for being born with a certain color of skin can be pretty terrifying, I’m pretty sure black people have received that threat wayyyyyy more times than they’ve made it. Between 3,000 and 4,000 black people were actually lynched (aka killed and hung from a tree) in the U.S. between about 1850-1960. And those are only the ones that were actually carried out! As for the “post a pic” part — many of these lynchings of black people were not only attended by spectators as if they were sporting events, but profiteers actually made photo postcards of the lynchings that included the bodies of the black victims, and white people actually sent these to their friends!! (Sound like horrific early social media photo posting to anyone else?)

I’m not saying that this makes threatening white people’s lives okay — but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are NOT isolated incidents, but parts of a larger social and historical narrative of race relations in our country.

Okay, but what about black-on-black crime?

Okay. Here’s the thing.

Yes, statistics show that there tends to be more crime among black communities than among white communities. HOWEVER, as this article points out, “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said. “It is the most difficult and searing problem in this whole mess.” The article also said that when you control for poverty, (poor) whites have about the same rate of crime as (poor) blacks. SO, until we can fix poverty and/or erase the poverty gap that currently disproportionately affects the black community, we will continue to have more crime in the black community. And they will continue to have more encounters with the police. And they will continue to be killed at a disproportionate rate to whites. And that is not okay. Hence #BlackLivesMatter, because the rest of us need a reminder sometimes when it’s not right in our faces.

Additionally, notice how I said “black communities” and “white communities”? That’s because, as mentioned in this excellent article addressing the question of black-on-black crime,

African Americans are twice as likely to live in black neighborhoods, not because they necessarily want to but because, most of the time, they just have to. With limited social mobility in comparison with whites, most black families can’t just pack up, leave and move to Any Location USA. Instead, they find themselves in majority-black neighborhoods, many of which are ravaged by stubborn trends of low income, poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

Oh yeah, and crime. But not because those neighborhoods are black “hoods” or black people are culturally or genetically predisposed to homicidal crime. Areas challenged by poverty indicators, as this Census Bureau American Community Survey analysis shows, are places where “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.” Some of the 10 most dangerous states in the nation admittedly have large—20 percent-plus—black populations concentrated in urban centers, but they’re also places with the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The article also notes that

The three most dangerous states in America are Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—all states ranging from 70 to over 80 percent white. And not so surprisingly, 6 out of 10 dangerous states are places with open-carry gun laws, which Stanford University researchers suggest contribute to an overall spike in aggravated assaults. Yet we’re loathe to call any of that an upward trend in “white-on-white crime,” just as you wouldn’t hear Russian President Vladimir Putin lamenting the rise in “Russian-on-Russian” murder rates (among the highest in the world, and higher than those in the United States).

So basically, let’s stop focusing in on “black-on-black” crime as a thing.

BUT even if you really want to, I say to you this: even if black-on-black crime is a problem that needs addressing, why do you assume it’s not being addressed? A quick search for “what is the black community doing to prevent black on black crime” quickly reveals that there is already much being done to address this issue — including this conference specifically about addressing crime in black communities, which is celebrating its 30th year! I think it’s safe to say that the black community is well aware of this issue, and don’t need us to remind them.

In conclusion…

If you still have qualms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, gentle reader, that’s okay. My point isn’t to force you to agree with me. My point is to help us all think deeply and self-critically about the hidden assumptions we hold about black people, how our value of people stands up to God’s value of people, and the role of protest in our shared life together. I hope you’ll keep an open mind — I try to! — and I hope you’ll feel welcome to continue to ask questions, do research, and pray about how we as white Christians might best come alongside our black (and brown) sisters and brothers to communicate in ways that can’t be misunderstood, “Your life MATTERS, to God and to me!”

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In Which Rebekah Revisits a Childhood Milestone with Grown-up Eyes

I learned to read when I was four. (Or so my mother tells me.) This is the first in a long line of book-related events in my personal childhood mythology. For example, the book with which I taught myself to read (The Ernie & Bert Book, I’ll have you know) is the same one that I immediately turned around and read to my just-born sister. Apparently this book has magical powers, because she grew up to be a bookworm too!

But the phase of bookwormish childhood that I want to focus on today is my first foray into chapter books: the Little House on the Prairie series.

Apparently I was so enthralled with these books that I would stay up way past my bedtime, sneakily reading in bed until my wimpy mortal eyes betrayed me and I’d fall asleep with a book on my face. (Literally. Like a book-tent for my face.) I loved reading about spunky Laura and her simple prairie family. Even as I grew older, I still loved to follow along with their migration across the country — perhaps because my family migrated a couple times too.

Recently I reorganized my bookshelves and came across my Little House books — still the same boxed set that I first loved in first grade. It’s been about 10 or 15 years now since I read them, and I decided it was time for the Ingalls and me to get reacquainted.

But as I went to place Laura and her stories on my “to read” pile, I noticed an interesting juxtaposition: right next to my Little House books was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (subtitled, “An Indian History of the American West”).

All of a sudden a lightbulb went on: at the same time Laura’s family was wagon-riding around the Midwest, natives were being pushed off their land. Cowboys were ranching even farther west. THE CIVIL WAR was happening, for goodness sakes!

This may sound like a stupid realization, but I never really thought before about how the Ingalls fit into history. I never learned or thought about who ELSE was living on the prairie. As I looked up the dates of when the events in the Little House books took place, I realized that A LOT was going on in the U.S. A lot more people than just “the settlers” were busy living life — and even “the settlers” are more complex, because, people, there were (and still are) BLACK COWBOYS AND FARMERS. And I know nothing about them. I wanted to learn more.

So, I will be re-reading the Little House series… but in its historical context. As I read my way through the 1850s-1890 with the Ingalls, I will also be reading the corresponding chapters from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, as well as several other (mainly children’s) historical fiction diaries of the time. You can see my full reading list/schedule below:

Little House Wounded Knee reading list UPDATED

And here are links to all the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to join me for any of them!

I’m really excited to revisit the Little House on the Prairie. But this time, I’m excited to meet the neighbors, too.

Let’s dive in!

*Edited to update book list / reading list based on books and resources added mid-project.

Social Justice and Job’s Defense

In today’s reading (Job 29-31), Job delivers his final defense. Basically he goes through one by one and asserts his fulfillment of all the major areas of social justice that he is required to perform. Part of the reason this section is so cool is that Job’s list gives us a good picture of what a righteous person’s life should look like in the OT. Job begins with more personal sins and works his way up to the “biggies”. He also (according to my study Bible) uses the “law of retaliation” method — i.e. he calls judgment on himself if he has NOT been righteous in each area. Check it out:

  1. Deceit/Adultery — If Job has either looked lustfully after another woman or been a deceitful man, then may all his crops be uprooted and may his wife “grind another man’s grain”! (So that’s what they call it these days…)
  2. Employee fairness / Equal treatment — “If I have denied justice to my servants… when they had a grievance against me” (31:13) then may God call him to account!
  3. Justice to poor, widows, and orphans — “If I have denied the desires of the poor… if I have kept my bread to myself…” (31:16-17), if he has in any way mistreated or used his influence against widows or orphans, “then let my arm fall off from the shoulder…” (OUCH!)
  4. Idolatry (including greed) — “If I have put my trust in gold…” or worshipped the sun or moon, then God will judge me for my unfaithfulness to him.
  5. Hypocrisy — If Job has been a hypocrite in his treatment of enemies, the poor, strangers, his tenants, or his own sin, then (I love this one) may his fields grow stinkweed!

After writing out this declaration of his innocence (or rather, an invocation of punishment if he’s guilty), Job affixes his signature and rests his case. So cool! I love the list as a whole (you should totally check out Job 31 sometime if you haven’t), but there are a few specific things that I noticed in particular.

First, I find it EXTREMELY interesting that idolatry and greed/coveting are listed together! Wow! Job even says that saying to gold “You are my security” would be a sin of unfaithfulness to God! It makes me wonder if we put wayyyy too much emphasis today on financial planning and making sure we are “financially secure” at all times. This is not to say that we should all go close our savings accounts or anything — but I wonder how many of us would be willing to say, “You know, I’m not sure if this job change will be able to pay the bills, but God, YOU are my security.” I think a lot more of us struggle with “money as our security” than we are willing to admit.

The second thing that really stuck out to me was how Job discusses the justification for his treatment of his servants. In verse 15 he says, “Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?”  My husband is often fond of saying, “If I matter, then everybody matters.” I think Job’s comment here is making the same statement, that both he and his servants (and all people) have equal value because of their shared creation by God.

Overall, I think Job’s “Declaration of Innocence” is really enlightening about the kind of conduct God expected/expects of his people. I also, however, find myself thinking a lot about scale. Job’s description of his duties focuses on a small, interdependent, and pretty self-contained community. These days, however, it seems there are fewer and fewer communities that are self-contained, and suddenly we find that we have access to 7 billion neighbors! (Or is it 8 billion by now?)

The point is that things have gotten a lot more complicated since Job’s time. However, I think that lots of times we use that numerical complication (or distance, language, culture, etc.) as an excuse to cop out of God’s requirements, which are NOT complicated: Be honest, treat people as if they matter as much as you, help the poor be less poor, be faithful to God, and don’t be a hypocrite. These requirements aren’t hard to understand, but we get ourselves all tied up sometimes because with 7 billion neighbors we’re not sure where to start and we just collapse into the overwhelm. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t know the solution for how to get all 7 billion people to play nice and treat each other justly. BUT we can’t allow ourselves to be so paralyzed by the enormity of the whole world’s need that we fail to even START reaching out to the people in our own spheres of influence.

So. Be a Job. Start enacting justice with the people around you right now. Yes, the ultimate goal of God’s kingdom is justice for all, and it can be hard — but don’t let confusion about how to reach the ultimate goal keep you from taking the steps you can already take.

Pursuing What Matters.

DISCLAIMER: I don’t say any of this to be harsh or arrogant. I myself have been and will continue to be highly guilty of pursuing erroneous goal(s) — of not pursuing what matters. My point isn’t about “who is better than who”. My point here is about “what we ought to be doing”. I’m not talking about status, I’m talking about responsibility.

In sports we can see how senseless it is to pursue an erroneous goal.

Have you ever watched a soccer game when one of the little players got confused about what the goal of the game was? I’ve seen or heard stories about kids who habitually or occasionally pursued wrong goals:

  • Kicking the ball out of bounds as soon as possible,
  • Hogging the ball as long as possible,
  • Kicking the ball as far as possible,
  • Dribbling & kicking the wrong direction, scoring on the wrong team’s goal,
  • and so on.

In sports, we can see that no matter how good you feel about yourself when you achieve your funny erroneous goal, no matter how badly you long to achieve it, it’s not what you ought be pursuing. It’s not what should be be guiding your actions. Period.

Living real life with erroneous goals is similarly senseless. I believe that real value and real purpose exist. And so I believe real, worthy goals can exist. Unlike in sports, these goals doesn’t appear on a visible scoreboard. But that doesn’t make them non-real. P

The furthering of my well-being is an erroneous central goal.

A worthy goal is oriented toward what matters.

If I matter, everybody matters. Whatever (or Whoever) makes me matter also makes everyone else matter.

If people’s well-being matters, then my own well-being is approximately one six-billionth of what matters.

Even if someone mattered more than everyone else, there is only a one in six-billion chance of that someone being me.

So acting as if I matter more than others is utterly erroneous. The furthering of my own well-being is a very erroneous central goal for life.

The furthering of my own well-being is, however, a fully valid sub-goal. If my central goal is doing what’s best for everyone, then I must look after my own needs as well as others’, because I can’t help others if I’m dead. Selflessness is a poor substitute for unselfishness.

  • True selflessness would mean that I never attended to my own needs,
  • whereas true unselfishness would mean that I never attended to my own needs any more than what I can fairly discern as being ultimately best for everyone.

In other words,

  • Selfishness treats my own betterment as the central goal.
  • Selflessness treats others’ betterment as the central goal.
  • Unselfishness treats betterment in general as the central goal, and treats my betterment and others’ betterment as complementary sub-goals.

My actions reflect my goals. When a prepubescent soccer player develops a ball-hogging habit that doesn’t lend itself very well to winning the game, it’s because she’s focusing on the wrong goals. When I, as a middle class person in a wealthy country, develop a comfortable picket-fence lifestyle whose costliness hamstrings my ability to contribute to the bettering of humanity, it is because I am pursuing my own betterment as my central goal rather than as a supporting sub-goal to the central goal of the betterment of persons.

(Note that by “persons” I do not exclude God. My own view is that God has personhood, and is the “Whoever” that makes us matter, specifically, by loving us. The writing above sounds a bit like secular utilitarianism/humanitarianism, but in fact, it aligns nicely with the Westminster Chatechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. Good for God, good for humans. Well-being in the deep spiritual sense.)

~95% of us over-focus on the goal of improving our own well-being.

We are too selfish. No one will ever reach the “perfect” balance-point between serving their self and serving others, and the question of “how much is too much” will never have a solid answer. But let’s be real; most of us know which side we err on: we are too selfish.

Human nature, whether because of evolution or original sin or both, is very selfish. Natural selection tends to allows only you to to be altruistic toward your blood relatives or people that can pay you back, because any gene that doesn’t ultimately favor itself — that doesn’t favor its own propagation — disappears from the gene pool. So unsurprisingly, most of us focus more on ourselves than is good for everyone. For now, I’m saying that’s 95% of us.

~90% of us should work on sacrificing more.

You’ll notice the 5% gap; that’s the people who err so slightly on the side of selfishness that there’s no way to know it. Those people aren’t perfect people — any one of them could have some other catastrophic, tragic flaw. It’s just that they don’t have any way of figuring out whether to sacrifice more or less. I’ll draw a picture:

Unless I have strong, strong reason to believe I’m in the tiny margin of people who are too sacrificial / ascetic / giving / minimalistic / etc., or in the almost as tiny margin of people who would have a hard time knowing which way they’re erring, then I should probably assume that my selfish, status-and-advantage-seeking human nature has got the best of me and landed me in the purple, and I’ve got some simplifying & sacrificing to do. That is, of course, assuming that everyone matters.

It’s really tough to justify leveraging my privileged position in this world primarily for my own benefit when doing so disproportionately hurts others. Why?

Because my own benefit only matters if human benefit matters. Which means that suffering large declines to others’ well being in return for small improvements to my own is simply a bad trade. There’s nothing to be said for it. It’s like ball-hogging and taking pot-shots on a soccer field, preventing ~3 of your teammates from scoring, just so you can score 1 more goal for yourself. It’s silly. It’s senseless and indefensible. It’s harmful and damaging and sad. And I do it too. I’m in the purple bar on the graph. I’m in Purple-Bar-Aholics Anonymous.

“Hello, my name is Daniel Schulz-Jackson, and I’m a purple-bar-aholic”.

At the end of the day I have to conclude that everyone — not just certain people with “a heart for service” — EVERYONE is called to act as if everybody matters, to act with the central goal of “Good” rather than “good for me”. Figuring out how can be difficult, but the difficulty is no excuse to abandon the attempt.