Friday, June 5, 2020

Lives That Matter

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. 
-Isaiah 10:1-2 (NIV)

An ambulance came to the house down the street this week. There were EMTs bustling in and out. Someone came out on a gurney. I’m wondering why they didn’t do wellness checks at every house on the block. 
     Isn’t our health just as important?
     A few years ago, the police were in our yard. My wife knew one of them, and asked him what was going on. There had been a guy at the park down the street showing off a gun, and they were trying to find him. They had chased him into our yard. They found him hiding in one of our trash bins. The people who live around us had to have been wondering why the police didn’t check their bins for hidden fugitives too. 
     They must have felt like the police were playing favorites.
    The Bible, especially the Old Testament, emphasizes over and over the importance of caring for widows, orphans, and foreigners. Doesn’t seem fair, does it, that God seems so much more concerned for a woman whose husband has died or a kid without parents than he does for married women or kids with loving parents? 
     Married women and parented children matter, too.
     Jesus told a parable about a shepherd with 100 sheep. While 99 of them were safe and content, munching grass and hanging out with the shepherd, one wandered off. The shepherd, bigot that he was, left the other 99 sheep standing around while he chased down the one that wandered off. And he was happier to have found the lost sheep than he was about the 99 that stayed close.
     How do you think those 99 felt? If, you know, sheep could feel. 
     Ninety-nine lives matter.
     Of course they do. And so do the lives of married women and parented children matter to God.
     And of course the police are just as willing to protect our neighbors as they were us.
     And of course it matters if other people on our block are sick.
     The reason it’s unnecessary in every one of those examples to point out that the “others” matter too is that the others in those examples don’t need attention. My neighbor down the street had a medical emergency — not the whole block. We had a fugitive from the police hiding on our property — our neighbors didn’t. Widows and orphans in the biblical world were far more vulnerable than the rest of society, so they needed extra care that someone with family to stand up for them didn’t need. And those sheep on the hillside were OK, protected by their location and the rest of the herd. That one that had wandered off was in serious danger.
     We get that, of course.
      So maybe we can also understand why, when someone holds a sign that says Black Lives Matter, it isn’t necessary or even very helpful for the rest of us to shout “All Lives Matter!”
     The returns are in. The statistics are clear. The anecdotes line up. Black lives, in America, are in danger in ways that white lives are not. Black people are incarcerated far more frequently than are white people. Blacks, by some accounts, are 50% more likely than whites to experience violence or to be killed in interactions with police. 
     Blacks are more likely than whites to attend under-performing grammar and high schools. Blacks, when they complete college, are more likely to do so at an institution that’s less well-funded, less selective, and less well-resourced, and are more likely to receive certificates instead of Associate or Bachelor degrees. All of which contributes to lower representation in post-grad programs and certain professional fields. 
     We could go on spouting statistics, but listen to your black friends and you’ll probably hear stories of unjust treatment — mockery and bullying, discrimination at work, at school, loans denied, white people crossing the street to avoid them. You’ll hear about family members buried before their time, and about their fears that the warnings and advice they give their own children won’t be enough to protect them. And, of course, you’ll get an education on the dangers of jogging, driving, traveling, shopping, and doing business while black.
     But you probably don’t even need all that to know that black lives are in danger in a way that white lives are not. All you probably need to do, if you’re not black, is to ask yourself one question: “If I could, would I want to become black?” Probably not, at least in part because we know that life in America in 2020, over a century and a half after slavery ended and over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, is harder if you’re black. 
     To say “black lives matter” isn’t to say that other lives don’t. It’s to say, “Black people need allies.” They need the people who have oppressed them since their ancestors were brought to America against their will to stop. They need people who benefit from the injustices committed against them to see what’s happening and use their voices to speak up for black lives. They need to be given equal access to the benefits of living in America, equal respect as human beings, and equal protection from danger. That isn’t playing the victim — black people in America are and have always been victims of injustice. For all the wonderful things about our country, that’s the great sin of which we’ve never really repented.
     So if we need to be reminded to care for widows and orphans, then surely it isn’t too much to ask that those of us with the most privilege and power in our world would stand up for those with less. 
     Surely it isn’t too much, especially for those of us who are believers, to show that black lives matter to us by speaking out against racism when we see it — even when it’s in our own neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, families, and hearts. Even if it costs us professionally or financially, or loses us friends or supporters or clicks.
     That assumes, of course, that we can see it. Too often we can’t. We tend to look at racism as an individual matter, and it’s rare that someone comes out and admits their actions come from racism. That’s where we may have to trust our black friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. That’s where we’ll have to look more carefully so that we can see racism as an evil that’s entrenched in the machinery of our society. 
     Those who believe in the God who looks after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner can’t really think that he doesn’t see the ways in which laws and decrees that benefit some of us are unjust and oppressive to others of us. We can’t really imagine, can we, that he won’t hold us accountable for the ways in which we’re complicit in that injustice and oppression, even through willful ignorance?
     May we, those of us who worship the God who is a Father to the fatherless, be friends to those in our day who are most in need of friends. 
      May those of us who claim salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, who came proclaiming a rival kingdom whose ethic was radical love, show that same sacrificial love to those who have most often experienced hate for nothing more than their race.
     And may those of us who say the Spirit lives in us be led by that Spirit to breathe his peace into our world.
     And may we finally, belatedly, believe that God treasures the black lives that we have callously thrown away.

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