When the minister called for a sharing of joys and concerns, a man asked for the families of the slain New York City police officers to be included in the ensuing prayer, and he completed his request with the declaration, “All lives matter.” The man requesting the prayer is black.
If I, being white (as we say, although I’m not really quite that pale), had made the same request and concluded it with the same declaration, would the same meaning have been conveyed? Or might identical words from my mouth have sounded, rather, like a spiteful counter to the declaration made in protest, “Black lives matter”?
All speech is uttered in context, and the context always makes a difference in the meaning, often a great difference. One trick of speech is using a general statement to weaken and almost contradict a specific statement it pretends to cover. For example, when an elected official has been caught in some sort of crooked behavior, many will quickly dismiss concern over the matter by declaring that all politicians are crooked. The generalization is used, not to heighten concern over the official’s behavior or call for change, but to dismiss the flagrant offense as insignificant and certainly not worth prosecuting or even reprimanding. So it is that the worst are excused by the widely accepted generalization, and the state of our nation worsens as crooked behavior goes unquestioned and uncorrected.
Black lives have been an exception.
The lives of black people have been devalued casually, violently, and systematically throughout our nation’s entire history right up to this day. The declaration is made in protest of the existing conditions. Black lives have been an exception. They have not mattered. Countering with the generalization, “All lives matter,” dismisses the protest, either ignoring the existing conditions or approving them.
Jesus revealed the hard, sharp edge
The man requesting prayer for the families of the murdered police officers was not contradicting the declaration that the lives of dark-skinned people matter; he was reaching across the divide, but in so doing he took a risk. He risked being heard as affirming the generalization that dismisses the greatly needed specificity that is denied every day in our nation’s life. He risked calming white people’s agitation at being asked to see and feel the outrage of racism and the daily realities of humiliations and brutality inflicted upon darker-skinned people. He risked the appearance of unity and equality where little unity exists and lives are not valued equally, and so his action could be misunderstood as acquiescence to the current state of inequality and abuse. But Christians should understand his refusal to paint police officers as his enemies, despite the unequal treatment of people who look as he does. And certainly the execution style murder of those two officers was utterly wrong and tragic, and we need to mourn with those who grieve. Just as we should mourn with those who grieve the deaths of their darker-skinned children, friends and neighbors and grieve also the bitterness and resentment sown in minds and hearts by the daily humiliations great and small that come with being black in America.