The recent discussion over InterVarsity’s Urbana conference and the Black Lives Matter movement has been becoming more and more lively. Jake Meador wrote an overview of the developments here, and in some ways this essay could be understood as a sympathetic but critical engagement with his sentiments. One barrier, however, to this sort of conversation is the perpetual problem of definitions. Are we sure that everyone involved in the conversation knows what “Black Lives Matter” is? Are we talking about the same thing at all?
Consider Derryck Green’s very direct critique of Evangelicals supporting BLM. He feels fully justified in distinguishing “BLM” from the cause for racial justice for Black people in America, even to the point of castigating BLM as an obstacle for Black flourishing and success. In response to similar growing criticism, InterVarsity wrote a defense of their actions. Cru Inner City added their support to Intervarsity here, and then Thabite Anyabwile wrote a series (see here and here) of supportive tweets. What’s noteworthy is that all three voices argue that they can support BLM and even lay claim to the name without supporting everything that BLM stands for: “InterVarsity does not endorse everything attributed to #BlackLivesMatter.” “And like Intervarsity, we do not agree with everything attributed to the BLM movement, but we share their desire to see justice and reconciliation in our land.” “The interesting thing is when I say ‘I’m pro-life,’ everyone who knows I’m a Christian ASSUMES I don’t support clinic shootings, etc. But those same people refuse to give me the benefit of that charitable assumption when I say ‘I support #BlackLivesMatter.’ Why is that?”.
The Evangelical supporters of BLM believe that BLM should be understood as a general sentiment of love and sensitivity towards African Americans. They are not attempting to pair institutions or even official organizations. These defenses are clear that we should not assume that they agree with everything associated with BLM. But what none of these responses seem to have considered is whether or not BLM wants them to use the slogan if they are only prepared to endorse some of the program. According to BLM’s website, they emphatically do not want this kind of support.
What is #BLM?
At blacklivesmatter.com, it is made clear that BLM is a unified organization with specific guiding principles. It says, “This is the Official #BlackLivesMatter Organization founded by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza.” The identity of the founders is very important, as we will see in more detail. But they also state that, “Black Lives Matter is a chapter-based national organization.” This is important to clarify. “Black Lives Matter” is not simply a sentiment or an idea. It is an organization with chapters across the country. Thus its guiding principles should not be dismissed, but rather understood as definitive of what the organization stands for. These guiding principles demonstrate a sort of pan-liberationist political ideology, emphasizing not only Black rights, but also Gay and Transgender rights. These are not accidental to BLM.
In the section entitled “Herstory,” Alicia Garza writes:
I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed.”
She goes on to express her feelings about others joining the movement saying:
We were humbled when cultural workers, artists, designers and techies offered their labor and love to expand #BlackLivesMatter beyond a social media hashtag. Opal, Patrisse, and I created the infrastructure for this movement project—moving the hashtag from social media to the streets.
This makes it clear that the three women wish to accept outsider participation while also retaining a sense of ownership over the hashtag and the movement.
This point is driven home in an emphatic way with the next section of “Herstory,” a narrative that Ms Garza pointedly called, “The Theft of Black Queer Women’s Work.” Here she explains that she does not appreciate outsiders using BLM to promote different agendas, and she makes it clear that a specific perspective on sexual identity is central to BLM. Ms. Garza writes:
Suddenly, we began to come across varied adaptations of our work–all lives matter, brown lives matter, migrant lives matter, women’s lives matter, and on and on. While imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery, I was surprised when an organization called to ask if they could use “Black Lives Matter” in one of their campaigns. We agreed to it, with the caveat that a) as a team, we preferred that we not use the meme to celebrate the imprisonment of any individual and b) that it was important to us they acknowledged the genesis of #BlackLivesMatter. I was surprised when they did exactly the opposite and then justified their actions by saying they hadn’t used the “exact” slogan and, therefore, they deemed it okay to take our work, use it as their own, fail to credit where it came from, and then use it to applaud incarceration.
…I was even more surprised when, in the promotion of their event, one of the artists conducted an interview that completely erased the origins of their work–rooted in the labor and love of queer Black women.
To Ms. Garza, this was an offensive and unjust act, a fundamental distortion of what BLM was intended to be and even a continuation of the abuse BLM set out to protest. Indeed, she writes in large bolded font:
It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions. Perhaps if we were the charismatic Black men many are rallying around these days, it would have been a different story, but being Black queer women in this society (and apparently within these movements) tends to equal invisibility and non-relevancy.
This emphasis on queer visibility is important. BLM sees itself as unique precisely because it is something broader than the protest of police brutality against Black people. It is a pan-liberationist movement “which affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” Indeed, at one point, Ms. Garza proclaims that “The legacy and prevalence of anti-Black racism and hetero-patriarchy is a lynch pin holding together this unsustainable economy. And that’s not an accidental analogy.” To fail to see this connection is to be fundamentally out of step with BLM. She believes that a generalizing of BLM away from this specifically pan-liberationist ideology is wrong. “When you adopt the work of queer women of color, don’t name or recognize it, and promote it as if it has no history of its own such actions are problematic.” It is, as her subtitle states, “the theft of Black Queer Women’s work.”
Ms. Garza does not actually forbid others from using the BLM slogan, but she does ask that the original source be credited:
When you adopt Black Lives Matter and transform it into something else (if you feel you really need to do that–see above for the arguments not to), it’s appropriate politically to credit the lineage from which your adapted work derived. It’s important that we work together to build and acknowledge the legacy of Black contributions to the struggle for human rights. If you adapt Black Lives Matter, use the opportunity to talk about its inception and political framing. Lift up Black lives as an opportunity to connect struggles across race, class, gender, nationality, sexuality and disability.
We can see that BLM is actually an organization with a clear ideology. Its founders are clear about that and explicitly request recognition. While BLM is reluctantly willing to lend its name and related iconography to co-belligerents, it asks that its original vision be advertised, discussed, and united to a singular struggle.
So, are Evangelicals doing that? So far they seem to be doing exactly what BLM asks them not to do. They are denying that BLM applies to a number of specific controversial political issues and are instead saying that it should primarily be understood as a generic affirmation of the defense and respect of Black life. There has been little to no interaction with the profound emphasis BLM places on sexual liberation, and Evangelicals have certainly not credited this ideology as the founding genius of BLM.
In other words, you might say that Evangelicals have been stealing Black Queer Women’s work. Is this really the right thing to do? It ignores their request, which in itself fails to honor the Golden Rule. From a certain point of view, it even appears to be a sort of assimilation of BLM into a more acceptable and “safe” narrative that more comfortably fits into a currently existing system. It’s a sort of alienation of the product from the laborer. You might even say that redefining BLM away from its original intent in order to give it to others is precisely an expression of Whiteness.
But Don’t Black Lives Matter?
At this point, a reasonable retort might be that many, perhaps most, people who support “Black Lives Matter” do so precisely as an unorganized grassroots phenomena. They really do believe that that Black lives matter, and so they naturally welcome the slogan. Is it really fair to conflate all who have used the slogan with the organized version of BLM?
This highlights a growing reality of hashtag activism. Its success is precisely in its dynamic and independent nature. Hashtags work because they take on a life of their own. But this also means that such success is in and through its ambiguity. People can mean dramatically different things by the same words. This certainly seems to be what’s going on with BLM. And we have to be fair at this point. If the supporters of BLM can be let off the hook, as it were, for jumping on a bandwagon, then can’t the critics also be let off that same hook? After all, is it really reasonable to suppose that Derryck Green disagrees with the idea that Black lives matter? I think it is very likely that he does believe that Black lives matter, as he explicitly affirms his support for the rights of Black men and women. And he says this even though he says that Evangelicals should have nothing to do with BLM.
However, the dilemma goes further than this, in my opinion. For someone just waking up from a decade-long nap, the reasonable way for them to investigate “BLM” would be to conduct an ordinary internet search. This is only reinforced by the fact that the movement distinguished itself in a major way through its use of online tools. But when one types “Black Lives Matter” in their search engine, they are typically pointed to the official website of BLM. Second to this is Wikipedia, which also credits Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi as founders. It goes on to inform the reader that there are currently 23 BLM chapters worldwide and then explains that BLM is unique precisely because of its philosophy of inclusion. This is consistent with the impression that BLM is a chapter-based organization with a specific identity and ideology. Indeed, when the Guardian wants to give its UK readers a look into BLM, it begins by focusing on the three women who founded it. While it is certainly understandable that a broader and diverse group of people have been attracted to BLM, with only an interest in the flashpoint of police violence against African Americans, at some point the actual organization will necessarily emerge, and it doesn’t seem wise to continue to ignore this.
This is not such an unusual problem. In the pro-life world, there are comparable distinctions. People who believe that abortion should be illegal are considered “pro-life.” There are, however, those who value life but also believe that abortion should be legal. To call these sorts of people “pro-life” would be confusing at best. Such people would protest that they are indeed pro-life, in the general sense of valuing it and advocating for it, but they are not pro-life in the activist sense. But that’s the sense that matters for most people, especially in political conversations. Further, within the pro-life world there are varying subgroups, some of whom have irreconcilable principles. Members of one subgroup generally try to avoid identifying directly with members of other subgroups for precisely this reason. They are all “pro-life” but they are not all “abolitionists” or “rescuers,” even if they do believe in some sort of abolishing or rescuing.
One might wish to take this opportunity to discuss the nature of intellectual property, or even perhaps point out the irony of BLM approximating a capitalistic spirit of brand ownership and control, but I think the simple association of sentiment to organization is still the most relevant. If we were not discussing a controversial point of politics and activism, then we could all obviously say “Black lives matter.” But given the realities of the last few years, we are foolish to assume that everyone means the same thing by the expression or understands calls to “support” BLM in the same way. BLM’s success was in re-invigorating the general support for Black lives, but their intent has always been to do so by connecting it to a broader vision of liberation in the face of oppression. For someone to disagree with this aspect of their intention is more than a trifling matter. It is worth being clear about, and it is something that the founders of BLM have asked of all those who would like to benefit from their work.
So What About Co-Belligerency?
Having acknowledged the significant challenges of co-belligerency between Evangelicals and BLM, I do think such co-belligerency is possible, even if limited and temporary. Something like the following qualification would be a good start, “While we appreciate the achievements of BLM and wish to support the contemporary movement towards protecting the rights and livelihoods of African Americans, we are obliged to inform you that BLM is itself much broader this than this sentiment and aims to achieve something which we cannot fully endorse. Indeed, our vision and theirs are, at a certain point, fundamentally irreconcilable. Nevertheless, for the time being, we are willing to work alongside of them to achieve important but limited goals.” This would be a statement of integrity which communicated appreciation, critique, and limited political solidarity.
This is similar to the kind of statement that Evangelicals often make when engaging in co-belligerency with Roman Catholics, a group with whom they share much more in common than they do with BLM. Such a statement would also help to clarify their intentions and to head off predictable criticisms from their sincerely concerned friends and allies. To refuse to do this raises its own questions and contributes to the fracturing of Evangelicals as a meaningful group in their own right.
Beyond qualified language, however, I would think that Evangelicals would want to eventually call for an alternative discourse on race and justice, one which was not founded on identity politics or revolutionary ideology. In fact, the very notion of “liberty” needs to be distinguished from individual autonomy and license, and the love for the imago dei in our Black brothers and sisters must be united with the creational integrity that God intended them to have. Evangelicals can and should be sympathetic to Black critiques of power structures in contemporary America, but alongside such a critique, we must also promote a prudent understanding of the common good and an unambiguous definition of “justice.” In other words, a Christian theory of justice can be revolutionary, but in order to be so properly, it should be united with a Christian theory of creation, anthropology, and statecraft, or, in plainer words, of nature, people, and society. While Black lives really do matter, “Black Lives Matter” cannot create such a theory, and it will eventually emerge in contradiction to it.
Please, don’t take this as a discouragement against Blackness or the defense and flourishing of Black life in public society. Instead, take it as a call to honor the wishes of BLM. Listen to their story and respect their own boundaries. Take it as a call towards authenticity. Evangelicals need not piggyback onto some competing program in order to seek the welfare of the city. Take it as a call for Christians to proclaim a distinctively Christian and truly humane message of integrated social justice and reconciliation. Take it as a call to let the nations be healed by the Tree of Life, Jesus Christ (Rev. 22:2).
Pastor Steven Wedgeworth (M.Div., Reformed Theological Seminary) is from South Mississippi and has been an ordained minister in the Communion of Reformed and Evangelical Churches since 2008. He is currently the pastor of Christ Church Lakeland in Lakeland, FL. Pastor Wedgeworth has also taught in classical and Christian schools for several years and has recently served on the founding school board for St. Augustine School in Jackson, MS. He is also the co-founder and editor of The Calvinist International, as well as a directing board member for The Davenant Trust, a foundation for Christian scholarship. Steven is married to Anna, and they have a two-year-old son and a new baby daughter. Together they enjoy good food, friends, and music, but Anna leaves the gardening and SEC football-watching to Steven.