One of my favorite actors was the late Christopher Reeve. Most people remember him as Superman, a character he played in four Superman movies from 1978-1987. He has been described as a Renaissance man gifted with intelligence, talent, athletic abilities, and integrity. His career was drastically curtailed by a horse-riding accident in 1995 which left him paralyzed.
In an address at the 1996 Democratic National Convention he said that he had had a lot of time since his accident to think about something that was being widely discussed at that time. That “something” was “family values.” His definition, after much reflection, was this: “We’re all family, and we all have value.” Of course, “family values” was a term used by those with an agenda for misogyny, homophobia, “pro-life” objectives, and the promotion and expansion of White privilege. Reeve understood that such a seemingly innocuous and even positive term like “family values” actually excluded many groups and races from the experience of authentic and everyday liberty and justice. “Family values” was a “dog whistle” designed to motivate Whites to pursue oppressive goals in an attempt to return to a way of life in the past they nostalgically and mistakenly believed was admirable and good.
Today in the discussion of “Black Lives Matter,” it’s easy for us to fall for the assertion that “all lives matter.” Unfortunately, such an assertion hides the presence of racism in our society. Yes, all lives do matter, but the reality is that some lives matter less in our culture than others. Black lives in particular have mattered less (if at all) in this country since the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Slavery was followed by Jim Crow which continued under the guise of “separate but equal.” Although the Civil Rights movement brought about many changes, racism still plagues our nation. It is evident today as we witness voter suppression, police brutality, an administration which has relaxed or refused to enforce laws guaranteeing equal protection, a President whose racism incites some whites to violence, and on and on we could go. Racism has stained the very soul of this nation. It is a deadly and destructive “virus.” And the only “vaccine” for this virus is truth, repentance, massive transformation throughout our political and social systems, and a recognition of the role of economic advantage for some at the expense of others. (This economic advantage is perhaps the most neglected factor in racism in the United States.)
There is a profound difference between Christopher Reeve’s statement that we are all family and we all have value and the current assertion by some that “all lives matter.” Reeve’s definition of “family values” came at a time when anyone with a brain cell working knew exactly what he meant and whose lives he was defending. His definition called for true equality regarding rights and opportunities. And for followers of Jesus Christ, the value we have is rooted in God’s love for each and all. But the phrase that “all lives matter” today is a conscious or unconscious attempt to dismiss the reality of racism in our nation. The phrase reminds me of people I knew in the South when I was a boy who claimed they “loved everyone.” But their actions and attitudes toward Blacks told a very different story. George Floyd was killed because he was Black. It’s true that not all police are racist or violent, but we do have a severe police problem in this country. And at the root of that problem is racism. The fact that many Whites still refuse to admit the gravity of this reality simply demonstrates how far we have to go to heal this “original sin” of America.
So, how can we as Christians distinguish between a valid assumption that all lives matter and the reality today that we must focus on the need for Black lives to matter? Elsewhere in this blog I have talked about the unconditional and indiscriminate love of God and how central that is to our Christian faith. But in that article, I also mentioned a vital concept first articulated by the Jesuits in South America called “a preferential option for the poor.” This insight developed after Jesuit priests witnessed the suffering of many South American Christians who were targeted by corrupt governments and greedy businesses. Such suffering included theft of ancestral lands, torture, and death. Some who are critical of this concept of God’s preference for the poor have wondered how God can be preferential and at the same time have indiscriminate love. Here is an analogy to explain this paradox: Most parents maintain that they love their children equally. Much damage can occur when parents show partiality to one child over another. However, there are times when one child’s needs are so immediate and pressing that a mother must spend more time and give more attention to that child than to her other children. But that does not mean that the parent does not equally love her other children. Love may be indiscriminate, but it also has to be specific if it is real. It is the specificity of indiscriminate love that is healing and redemptive. Without that specificity, love becomes sentimental and impotent.
If we are all children of God, then all our lives matter. But when one group or individual is singled out for oppression, injustice, neglect, disenfranchisement, hatred, and violence, this Abba God must demonstrate a preferential option for that group or individual. One vital and indispensable part of authentic love is justice/fairness. (Justice is what love looks like in the public arena.) We know that in our own families. But until we truly embrace that truth as a nation, “all lives matter” is a copout and a failure to recognize the dynamics of racism, not to mention a neglect of the suffering of siblings within the family of God. Perhaps someday we can joyfully and honestly say that “all lives matter.” But until that day, we must currently focus on how much or how little Black lives matter.