Remembering John Lewis and wondering whether we can hear the words “Black lives matter” as a Gospel Mandate

Like so many Americans, I was saddened to hear of the death of John Lewis, Congressman from Georgia. He was a man deeply grounded in the gospel of Jesus and committed to the nonviolent principles he learned in his work with Martin Luther King. At an early age he articulated his beliefs and principles as one of the speakers, along with Dr. King, at the 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Some two years later he was called to live out his beliefs as he walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Recently, while reading an article about Congressman Lewis, my eyes kept coming back to the photo above the story. It was a photograph from Selma, Alabama, my hometown, of “Bloody Sunday” when peaceful marchers were attacked by law enforcement officers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the beginning of their march to Montgomery. A large group of state troopers are chasing the marchers back over the bridge, with Billy clubs raised and gas masks covering their faces. One trooper is standing over a fallen man, Billy club in his hand and arm raised. The fallen man has his hand on his head. This man is John Lewis. The blow from the state trooper’s Billy club cracked his skull.

I remember as a 10-year old seeing this same picture in our local newspaper. Then, my 10-year old eyes were not drawn to the injured man. Instead, all I could see was the sign on the building across the street which said, “Haisten’s Mattress & Awning, Invest in Rest.” Mr. Haisten, who owned this business, lived down the street from me and I knew him and his wife since the boys in the neighborhood often had to climb their fence to retrieve errant baseballs which landed in their yard.

When I looked at that picture in March 1965, I did not see violence or oppression. I did not see a young black man being wrongfully assaulted. I just saw “Haisten’s Mattress & Awning, Invest in Rest.” That is all that mattered to my young 10-year old eyes. The life, the health, the well-being and safety of that young man didn’t matter. In short, his Black life did not matter.

The life of John Lewis did not matter to the state trooper who was wantonly striking him on the skull. The lives of the marchers did not matter to the Selma, Alabama Police Department. Their lives did not matter to the Dallas County Sherriff’s Department. Their lives did not matter to the State of Alabama. The lives of the black citizens who were wrongfully beaten as they crossed the bridge on “Bloody Sunday” did not matter to so very many in the United States of America until they saw on their television sets that evening what happened on that Sunday afternoon on a bridge in Selma, Alabama. And then, for many, Black lives, for a time, mattered.

We have come a long way since Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march but still the phrase “Black lives matter” proclaims we as a country are not where we ought to be. The Black Lives Matter movement began as a response to the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and other violence inflicted upon Black individuals and communities. Since that time, and especially in the last few months, Black Lives Matter has become highly politicized, both by the left and the right. Like so many issues in our country today, Black Lives Matter has become a lightning rod, hot button topic in our highly polarized society.

I am writing about Black lives matter—not the movement, but our fellow American citizens whose skin color is black—because, for far too long, many in our country have acted as if the lives of Black people did not matter. I did not choose to write about this to proclaim my political allegiance to any party or politician. I feel compelled to write about this because, in these troubled times, I am struggling as hard as I can to follow Jesus and love my neighbor as myself. I am trying to work out “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) exactly how I “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being” (Book of Common Prayer, p.305).

I often say, especially in these strange times we find ourselves in, that we are all children of God, each of us made in the image of God, bearing the divine spark of the Holy Spirit within each of us. If that is the truth—and I believe it is—then why should we have to single out one particular group of people proclaiming that they matter? Does that phrase signify that Black lives matter more or are different than other segments of the population?

One doesn’t have to look too far or dig too deeply to see that Black lives in our country are generally at a disadvantage in so many different ways when compared to other groups. As a people, and a race, Black Americans are disproportionately impacted regarding access to voting, quality education and health care. Black Americans, especially males, are more likely than other races to experience violence at the hands of law enforcement. Similarly, when one looks at arrests and sentencing, the Black population is adversely impacted at a much higher rate than other groups. The unemployment rates are higher and average wages are lower for Black Americans than other segments of our population.

In our Declaration of Independence, we say that all men (humans) are created equal and that we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet, for our entire history, Black Americans have faced barriers and obstacles keeping them from accessing these “unalienable Rights.” It is a stark judgement on our democracy and political system that a great segment of our population is denied or has restricted access to many of the rights and privileges of basic citizenship.

This is the political reality, but I want to address the gospel mandate to pay attention to and care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:44-46). In this gospel passage, Jesus speaks about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and those in prison, asking how we have treated them. He reminds us that, inasmuch as we bless or ignore these children of God, we are blessing or ignoring Him. In our country, Black Americans are disproportionately hungry, thirsty, treated as strangers, sick and in prison. In short, in our society they are “the least of these.”

This is why I don’t believe we can say “all lives matter” and then proclaim we are following the gospel of Jesus Christ. To say simply that “all lives matter” is a way for white people – like me — to get ourselves “off the hook” saying, in effect, nothing is inherently and systemically wrong in our culture and society; that the status quo is just fine. In the United States, quite often the laws, the criminal justice system, access to voting, healthcare, and other basic unalienable rights work to the disadvantage of a specific segment of our population. Not only that, but those same societal structures have benefited the white population generation after generation, creating systemic benefits that further the racial divide.

“Black Lives Matter” does not purport that other lives do not matter. Rather, it is a declaration that a race does, in fact, matter, despite societal structures repeatedly telling and showing otherwise. To say that “all lives matter” can be a way for white people to ignore the truth that our culture and its conscious or unconscious biases have repeatedly said some lives — often white lives — matter more than others.

As Christians we are called to follow Jesus, loving God and our neighbors—all of them. In the Episcopal tradition, our Baptismal Covenant calls us to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.”

If we are to do what Christ calls us to do and be the people Christ calls us to be, we must prayerfully discern how our thoughts, words, deeds, as well as the structures of our society, impact, marginalize and discriminate against people of color. Jesus says how we treat “the least of these” is how we are treating Him. If we are to take Jesus at his word, when we fail to recognize and act to address these societal issues, we are ignoring the very presence of Christ in our midst

Blessings, grace and peace,