Over the holiday break a small storm in the evangelical blogosphere broke out over Intervarsity’s recent endorsement of Black Lives Matter at their annual Urbana event. Most notably, many commented on the speech given by Michelle Higgins, director of Faith for Justice and a worship leader at South City Church in St Louis. (I suppose I should mention at this point that three of my closest friends attend South City and I’ve been there for worship once and was richly blessed by both Michelle’s work leading worship and by the sermon given by her father, who is also the senior pastor at the church.)
You can see Michelle’s speech below the jump:
Though I’m mostly sympathetic to Michelle, there are some things in her speech that one could reasonably criticize. Her discussion of the pro-life movement isn’t helpful, although this piece by Life Site News would be much better if it actually criticized Michelle’s real argument rather than misrepresenting her based on a failure to listen to everything she said. Michelle’s point is not to condemn certain forms of pro-life activism, but to highlight how it is much easier to go picket a clinic for a couple hours rather than actually adopt a child at risk of being aborted or currently in the foster system. The point she is making is that evangelicalism is very good at forms of activism that do not require much from us, but that we are not as good at more costly forms of activism. The way she framed the whole thing made it more likely that white evangelicals would misunderstand her, but one would hope that sites like Life Site News would handle her words more responsibly and charitably than they have in that piece.
The other significant point to consider is her endorsement of Black Lives Matter, an organization whose key principles certainly include points that conflict with orthodox Christianity. That being said, one can reasonably argue that Black Lives Matter, just as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements, is only loosely tied to any centralized organization. Michelle’s endorsement of Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be understood as an endorsement of the entire centralized organization, but rather of the more general movement which is a far more complex, heterogeneous thing than the centralized body.
That said, this is another rather predictable problem. As often happens in these conversations, white conservatives tend to be aware of racial issues only when a headline-grabbing event occurs and, in many cases (though not all), the headline-grabbing event is characterized by a great deal of ambiguity. The Mike Brown case is perhaps the most obvious example. Thus white conservatives know Black Lives Matter chiefly for things like the Dartmouth protests. What white conservatives generally don’t acknowledge is that while the Brown case was ambiguous, the record of the Ferguson PD on race issues is anything but. Here is just one example of what you’ll find in the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson:
Black Lives Matter isn’t simply the branch of America’s SJW campus radicals concerned with race. It’s also a far more heterogeneous movement of many different types of people trying to address clear abuses of justice like the example given above.
There is more that needs to be said on this point though. Several weeks ago I was eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant in Lincoln NE watching Donald Trump give his speech calling for a ban on Muslims entering the USA. To put that another way, I was watching a major presidential candidate (who has already called Mexican immigrants “rapists”) seriously endorse a policy that is at the very least xenophobic, if not specifically racist.
This is a man who enjoys support from 35% of polled Republican voters on average and currently leads the nomination race by 15.5% in the polls. Not only that, but I was watching this speech while sitting in a restaurant that is, in a sense, a living memorial to the legacy of American racism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries toward Chinese immigrants. And, to top it all off, I was doing all this while living in a state that was for centuries inhabited by various native groups prior to our nation’s seizing of their land and obliteration of their history and culture through the use of manipulative, dishonest treaties and boarding schools that punished students for speaking their people’s native language and forced them to dress as westerners.
And here’s the kicker: Those examples of xenophobia or racism mentioned above don’t even include black Americans. It only covers Mexicans, Arabs, Chinese, and the various indigenous peoples. Put another way, one can give a horrifying history of American racism and injustice without even discussing the racial minority that has suffered most regularly at our hands, black Americans, or the most horrifying example of racial injustice, race-based slavery.
Given all that, is it so implausible to us white Americans that our nation would still struggle with significant issues of racial injustice that are built into our legal systems as well as being hardwired into the cultural norms and habits that shape our nation’s shared life?
Is it so difficult to believe a black person when they say they are afraid of the cops, even when they are simply being stopped for expired license plates or a busted headlight or even for nothing at all? Is it so hard to believe this (white) friend of mine who fears for the safety of her black son? Is it so hard to believe our brother Thabiti Anyabwile when he writes that his one fear with moving back to the United States is what would happen to his sons?
And if all that is reasonable, is it not possible for us to be more careful about our knee-jerk reactions when a black person speaks up about modern-day American racism?
We do not have to endorse everything about the organization Black Lives Matter. We shouldn’t feel like we cannot ask questions—even critical questions—about speeches like the one given by Michelle. But we also should not be instinctively suspicious of the claims of our black neighbors. Our nation’s history is such that we should have no difficulty believing our black neighbors when they tell us about what life is like for black people in America today. Indeed, given our nation’s appalling history it would be more surprising if they didn’t have any problems.
So while it is quite reasonable to ask critical questions about Black Lives Matter and whether they are the sort of organization Christians can work with as co-belligerents, it is not at all reasonable to act as if the grievances raised by Higgins and others are fanciful flights of imagination based on a victimization complex. If evangelicals cannot partner with Black Lives Matter, then the appropriate response is not to silently go about our lives as we always have, serenely comfortable in the way Michelle described in her talk. Rather, we must model a more excellent way for protesting gross injustice and pursuing reconciliation, healing, and reparations for black Americans.