Perspective and the Challenge of #AllLivesMatter

Perspective and the Challenge of #AllLivesMatter
July 28, 2015 Dan Wunderlich

When comedian Jerry Seinfeld would begin to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of the attention he was receiving or a project he was working on, he looked at pictures from the Hubble Telescope to remind himself of his place and scale within the universe. Perspective makes a huge difference in how we see and experience what is going on in our lives and in the world.

Our ability to put things in perspective diminishes when we encounter emotionally heavy situations. It can be even harder when the situation we are facing points to the possibility that we are wrong or responsible for other people’s pain.

That is why the prophet Nathan’s choices in confronting King David about his sin with Uriah and Uriah’s wife in 2 Samuel 11 is so smart and effective. Nathan doesn’t open with, “you’re wrong.” Instead, he tells a story that mirrors the situation but is just different enough that David’s perspective isn’t clouded by pride or a need to defend his own actions.

Once David is stirred to seek justice and pronounce a punishment against the one in the wrong, Nathan turns the tables–You are that man!

A quick glance through the headlines and reactions to them on social media reveals people attempting to defend and protect, left and right. Sometimes, the reactions and justifications are legitimate, but other times they reveal limited perspective.

One of the most visible examples at the moment is found in those responding to the Black Lives Matter movement with, “but all lives matter.” This has made the mainstream media news cycle lately after Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley offered that response to protesters at a campaign event (clearly, none of his staff remembered that Hillary had received a negative reaction for saying virtually the same thing a month before). But you don’t have to wait for a national figurehead to say it–it’s on Facebook and Twitter everyday, likely even from some of your friends, family, or church members.

The problem comes in that generalizing away the particular focus on an issue that deserves attention is to dismiss its importance. Highlighting the worth and value of black lives does not mean that any other lives aren’t of worth and value. What activists are calling for the general public to do is to look closely and make sure that black lives do ultimately matter in all areas.

The challenge comes when you try to explain to your friends and/or congregation why #AllLivesMatter is so hurtful. It is absolutely true that all lives matter, and chances are good that many are implying inclusion of black lives in their sentiment when they respond in this way. Thus, the anger or disappointment with this response can feel at least surprising and at most like a personal charge of racism. And now we are in the defensive zone that narrows our perspective.

In a Vox article on the issue, an analogy is presented from Reddit user GeekAesthete:

Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie likens it to our focus on and fundraising for different kinds of cancer, writing:

“Black lives matter” is a statement of specific concern; police violence is most acute against black Americans, and so activists stress the importance of their lives. To reply with “all lives matter” is to suggest there’s no specific problem of police abuse targeted at black Americans. It’s as if someone responded to an annual breast cancer drive with “Breast cancer matters. Prostate cancer matters. All cancer matters.” It sounds like a dismissal, and that’s how it was received.

These illustrations attempt to do what Nathan did for David–shift the concept enough to make it personally relatable for everyone.

I know pastors who are struggling with how to address this topic, especially those who are pastoring predominantly white congregations and/or are located in the south. Any hint of race immediately brings up the defenses in some people. Yet, for many, they feel like Nathan–God is calling them to speak out on this (2 Samuel 12:1). Perhaps employing Nathan’s strategy and sharing these illustrations or one like it would help. Sure, once you make the final turn to clarify what you have been talking about some people will immediately jettison the thoughts and feelings they just had and will raise the drawbridge. But some might, as David did, see from a new perspective and look for ways to change.

And if you need a little encouragement to follow in the prophetic footsteps of Nathan, check out the New Testament liturgy for this week from Ephesians 4:11-16 (CEB):

He gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. As a result, we aren’t supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let’s grow in every way into Christ, who is the head. The whole body grows from him, as it is joined and held together by all the supporting ligaments. The body makes itself grow in that it builds itself up with love as each one does its part.

In the comments below, I would love to hear how the conversation has been going (or not going) in your communities of faith. What techniques, approaches, or resources have you found most helpful in bringing about fruitful engagement?

Lectionary Connections: Year B Proper 13, Year C Proper 6

Header image by Flickr user Dorret. Used under Creative Commons License. Cropped from Original.

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