by Leroy Barber
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.
My heart dropped as I watched the face of Michael Brown’s mother and listened to her screams as she looked upon her son lying in the street, not being allowed to approach his body. His dead body lay there for four hours and his mom, family, and friends looked on with horror. The scene was played over and over and the more it played, the more it seemed as though the life of this young man meant nothing. Many had that same thought and #BlackLivesMatter captured it. The scene of Michael Brown’s death, along with many others, was the catalyst to the creation of #BlackLivesMatter. The statement was needed to remind us that we did indeed matter, even if only to ourselves. We are declaring it for ourselves, for our children, and for generations to come.
The Black Lives Matter movement is currently causing controversy and debate, even within the church. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship weathered quite a bit of criticism when #BlackLivesMatter was highlighted at the Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference. Some Christians wonder how we can embrace a movement that seems in certain ways to uphold values that are contrary to Christian ideals. Why should the church, some ask, care about BLM when its agenda seems to be suspicious and even dangerous? But perhaps we need to look at the emergence of BLM in another way: as a part of God’s plan to bring us into relationship with one another across race and cultural barriers.
Revelation 5 pictures all of God’s people together worshiping the Lamb who was slain on our behalf. On that day we will together make up a kingdom of priests, and that kingdom will be composed of people from every language, ethnicity, culture, and nationality. The barriers that divide us will be gone, though the skin colors and speech that distinguish us will remain. Indeed, the very diversity that now causes us so much trouble will then be a notable part of the glory and wonder of our combined worship.
To be sure, the picture in Revelation 5 is of a future time. But that future reality is far truer than our present tumultuous attempts to just get along. The reality is that our lives are bound together in God’s kingdom and that we can together begin to experience his ultimate plans even now.
The text says that they will reign on the earth. The location of this glorious future reality is right here, where we’re living now. Can we imagine for a moment what this will look like—our barrios and neighborhoods being places of uninterrupted shalom, our slums and “projects” lush and beautiful centers of human flourishing, our war-torn cities and countrysides gardens of peace and joy?
It seems pretty clear that we have not yet experienced all that God has for us as a redeemed and reconciled community of believers. It is time we started reaching across the barriers that continue to separate us.
Debunking the myths of #BlackLivesMatter
The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of the continued struggle of black people in the United States and around the world. It’s a call for blacks to be respected as human beings. This movement has given voice to many who are being oppressed and denied rights that should be given to all people. I have felt this violation of basic human rights profoundly as I’ve watched men and women killed in the streets by police—with many of these participating officers not even having to answer in court. Black Lives Matter seems to have sparked a resurgence of the civil rights movement and features a younger generation who is taking ownership. Although the movement understands the history of civil rights and the role of the church, it has decided to do some things differently. This has come under major scrutiny from many. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about #BLM, and I would like to debunk some of the myths and misunderstandings that surround it.
Myth number 1: The movement doesn’t care about black-on-black crime. The idea that black-on-black crime is not a significant political conversation among black people is patently false. In Chicago, long maligned for its high rates of intraracial murder, members of the community have created the Violence Interrupters to disrupt violent altercations before they escalate. Those who still insist on talking about black-on-black crime frequently fail to acknowledge that most crime is intraracial. 93 percent of black murder victims are killed by other black people. 84 percent of white murder victims are killed by other white people. The continued focus on black-on-black crime is a diversionary tactic whose goal is to suggest that black people don’t have the right to be outraged about police violence in vulnerable black communities just because those communities have a crime problem. The Black Lives Matter movement acknowledges the crime problem, but it refuses to locate that crime problem as a problem of black pathology. Black people are not inherently more violent or more prone to crime than other groups. But black people are disproportionately poorer, more likely to be targeted by police and arrested, and more likely to attend poor or failing schools. All of these social indicators place a black person at greater risk for being either a victim or a perpetrator of violent crime. To reduce violent crime, we must fight to change systems rather than demonizing people.
Myth number 2: It’s a leaderless movement. The Black Lives Matter movement is a leader-full movement. Many Americans of all races are enamored with Martin Luther King Jr. as a symbol of leadership and of what real movements look like. But the Movement for Black Lives (another name for the BLM movement) recognizes many flaws with this model. First, focusing on heterosexual, cisgender black men frequently causes us not to see the significant amount of labor and thought leadership that black women provide to movements, not only in caretaking and auxiliary roles, but on the front lines of protests and in the strategy sessions that happen behind closed doors Moreover, those old models of leadership favored the old over the young, attempted to silence gay and lesbian leadership, and did not recognize the leadership possibilities of transgender people at all. A movement with a singular leader or few visible leaders is vulnerable, because those leaders can be easily identified, harassed, and killed, as was the case with Dr. King. But by having a leader-full movement, BLM addresses many of these concerns. BLM is composed of many local leaders and many local organizations including Black Youth Project 100, the Dream Defenders, the Organization for Black Struggle, Hands Up United, Millennial Activists United, and the Black Lives Matter national network. We demonstrate through this model that the movement is bigger than any one person. And there is room for the talents, expertise, and work ethic of anyone who is committed to freedom.
Myth number 3: The movement has no agenda. Many believe the Black Lives Matter movement has no agenda—other than yelling and protesting and disrupting the lives of white people. This is also false. Since the earliest days of the movement in Ferguson, groups like the Organization for Black Struggle, the Black Lives Matter network, and others have made a clear and public list of demands. Those demands include swift and transparent legal investigation of all police shootings of black people, official governmental tracking of the number of citizens killed by police (disaggregated by race), the demilitarization of local police forces, and community accountability mechanisms for rogue police officers. Some proposals like the recently launched Campaign Zero by a group of Ferguson activists call for body cameras on every police officer. But other groups are more reticent about this solution, since it would lead to increased surveillance and possible invasions of privacy, not to mention a massive governmental database of information about communities of color that are already heavily under surveillance by government forces.
Myth number 4: It’s a one-issue movement. Although it is true that much of the protesting to date has been centered on the issue of police brutality, there’s a range of issues that the movement will likely push in years to come. One is the issue of our failing public education system, which is a virtual school-to- prison pipeline for many black youth. Another is the complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. Many of the movement’s organizers identify as abolitionists, which in the twenty-first-century context refers to people who want to abolish prisons and end the problem of mass incarceration of black and Latino people. Three other significant issues are problems with safe and affordable housing, issues with food security, and reproductive-justice challenges affecting poor women of color and all people needing access to reproductive care. As I frequently like to tell people, this movement in its current iteration is still very new. Things take time to mold and take shape. Give it some time to find its footing and its take on all the aforementioned issues. But the conversations are on the table largely because many of the folks doing work on the ground came to this movement through their organizing work around other issues.
Myth number 5: The movement has no respect for elders. The BLM movement is an intergenerational movement. If you ever have occasion to attend a protest action, you will see black people of all ages, from the very young to the very old, standing in solidarity with the work being done. Certainly there have been schisms and battles between younger and older movers about tactics and strategies. There has also been criticism from prior civil rights participants. BLM has a clear rejection of the respectability politics ethos of the civil rights era, namely a belief in the idea that proper dress and speech will guard blacks against harassment by the police. This is a significant point of tension within black communities, because in a system that makes one feel powerless to change it, belief in the idea that a good job, being well-behaved, and having proper dress and comportment will protect you from the evils of racism makes it feel like there’s something you can do to protect yourself, that there’s something you can do to have a bit of control over your destiny. This movement patently rejects such thinking in the face of the massive evidence of police mistreatment of black people across all classes and backgrounds. All people should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of how one looks or speaks.
Myth number 6: The black church has no role to play. Many know that the black church was central to the civil rights movement, since many black male preachers became prominent civil rights leaders. This current movement has a very different relationship to the church than in movements past. Black churches and black preachers in Ferguson have been on the ground helping since the early days after Michael Brown’s death. But protesters patently reject any conservative theology that focuses on keeping the peace, praying copiously, or turning the other cheek. Such calls are viewed as a return to passive respectability politics. But local preachers and pastors like Rev. Traci Blackmon, Rev. Starsky Wilson, and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou have emerged as what I call “Movement Pastors.” With their radical theologies of inclusion and investment in preaching a revolutionary Jesus (a focus on the parts of Scripture where Jesus challenges the Roman power structure) and their willingness to think of church beyond the bounds of a physical structure or traditional worship, they are reimagining what notions of faith and church look like and radically transforming the idea of what the twenty-first-century black church should be.
Myth number 7: The movement hates white people. The statement “black lives matter” is not an anti-white proposition. Contained within the statement is an unspoken but implied “too,” as in “black lives matter, too,” which suggests that the statement is one of inclusion rather than exclusion. However, those white people who continue to mischaracterize the affirmation as being anti-white are suggesting that in order for white lives to matter, black lives cannot. That is a foundational premise of white supremacy. It is antithetical to what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, which is the simple proposition that black lives also matter. The Black Lives Matter movement demands that the country affirm the value of black life in practical and pragmatic ways, including addressing an increasing racial wealth gap, fixing public schools that are failing, combating issues of housing inequality and gentrification that continue to push people of color out of communities where they have lived in for generations, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. None of this is about hatred for white life. It is about acknowledging that the system already treats white lives as if they have more value, as if they are more worthy of protection, safety, education, and a good quality of life than black lives are. This must change.
Myth number 8: The movement hates police officers. Police officers are people. Their lives have inherent value. This movement is not an anti-people movement; therefore, it is not an anti-police-officer movement. Most police officers are just everyday people who want to do their jobs, make a living for their families, and come home safely at the end of their shift. This does not mean, however, that police are not implicated in a system that criminalizes black people, that demands that they view black people as unsafe and dangerous, that trains them to be more aggressive and less accommodating with black citizens, and that does not stress that we are taxpayers who deserve to be protected and served just like everyone else. Thus the Black Lives Matter movement is not trying to make the world more unsafe for police officers; it hopes to make police officers less of a threat to communities of color. We reject the idea that asking officers questions about why one is being stopped or arrested, about what one is being charged with, constitutes either disrespect or resistance. We reject the use of military-grade weapons as appropriate policing mechanisms for any American community. We reject the faulty idea that disrespect is a crime, that black people should be nice or civil when they are being hassled or arrested on trumped-up charges. And we question the idea that police officers should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to policing black communities. Increasingly, the presence of police makes black people feel less rather than more safe. And that has everything to do with the antagonistic and power-laden ways in which police interact with citizens generally and black citizens in particular. Police officers must rebuild trust with the communities they police. Not the other way around.
Myth number 9: The movement’s primary goal should be the vote. Recently the Democratic National Committee endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM network swiftly rejected that endorsement. While voting certainly matters, particularly in local municipalities like Ferguson, movement members are clear that voting for policies and politicians whose ultimate goal is to maintain a rotten and unjust system is counterproductive. The movement cares about national politics, and many participants have sought to make presidential candidates responsive to their political concerns. But there is deep skepticism about whether the American system is salvageable, since it’s so deeply rooted in ideas of racial caste. In this regard, the BLM movement, together with the Occupy movement of years past, is causing a resurgence of a viable, visible, and vocal (black) left in national politics. Moving some issues of import onto the 2016 election agenda should therefore be viewed as a tactic, not a goal. The goal is freedom and safety for all black lives. And that goal is much bigger than one election.
Myth number 10: There’s not actually a movement at all. Until Bernie Sanders sought the attention of Black Lives Matter participants, many were unwilling to acknowledge that a new racial justice movement even existed. For the record, since August 2014, there have been more than 1,030 protest actions held in the name of Black Lives Matter. We should take notice of this new generation of freedom fighters as they make their mark in history. A new generation of protest music has come forth, with songs from Janelle Monae, Prince, J. Cole, Lauryn Hill, and Rick Ross. The first national convening in July drew over one thousand participants. There is a new consciousness and a new spirit seeking justice, and the participants carrying the torch show no signs of slowing down.
I’m aware that there are challenges for some Christians when it comes to Black Lives Matter. I am not saying (and neither do I believe they are saying) that you have to agree with everything. Giving support to BLM doesn’t mean you agree with everything—there are differing opinions even within the movement itself. What we should agree on is that this movement has helped bring voice to the frustrations and feelings of many black people who have felt neglected, looked past, and ignored as human beings. The need to feel seen as a person is real.
I am not requesting that you agree with everything you have read about Black Lives Matter. I am advocating for a listening ear, healthy dialogue, and love. This is where loving hard people— including our enemies—begins to take shape in our hearts. Can you love and disagree? Can you love and honor another’s humanity in spite of the differences?
For those who are not black
I recently talked to a white, male, middle-aged friend and leader in the nonprofit world, and he confessed that there is no one black in his inner circles, and for that matter, not a single person of color. This was a lament, and in it he was truly confessing and wanting to repent. He wanted to start again.
The big question then was how. How does a white man in his fifties make new friends? It’s hard for anyone to look outside their social circles for new friends, and it’s is especially hard for middle-aged folks like him and me.
This is one of the more insidious things about racism in America. We don’t fully know how to engage outside our own circles. This has caused injustice to burn out of control and racism to run rampant, paralyzing us when it comes to practical ways to find reconciliation.
But there are ways to start. Here’s a list of suggestions:
• Read books written by blacks and discuss them.
• Shop in a mall or store on the other side of town routinely.
• Watch different TV shows.
• Listen to a different radio station.
• Go to a different coffee shop.
• Go see movies with mostly black casts.
• Attend a black church routinely (once a month or quarter).
• Give to an organization led by a person of color.
• Go see a play written and performed by black writers and actors.
• Visit the African American museum close to you.
• Go to a sporting event with a black coworker at your place of employment.
• Take your church small group to a protest or rally.
• Set up regular prayer time or attend a prayer meeting at a black church.
• Put your kids in an activity where they will interact with black children.
Please don’t get me wrong. We have some very deep racial problems and injustice to work through, and these things are by no means the answer. But they may at least move us a step closer in understanding by creating space for new friendships to emerge.
Taking the time
I’ve thought about why certain people seem to be able to embrace those who are different, whereas others struggle with getting along. It seems to me that the most important factor is patience—that the people who succeed at getting past differences and misunderstandings are those willing to take the time to get to know other people.
Those who embrace others don’t let stereotypes or even their own experiences predetermine the possibilities for new relationships. They risk getting to know someone even when it might be dangerous. They disregard the misplaced counsel of their close friends who think the idea of engaging others who are different is impossible or foolish. They ignore the racist taunts and name-calling that might come along with taking risks for relationships and for having the ideal that perhaps we can get to a new place. They accept that the world may misunderstand them. They remain anchored to the certain knowledge that God will bless their obedience and will reveal a bit more of himself in the other person they are called to love.
Embracing the call to relationships means . . .
• taking time to get to know one another.
• taking time to trust one another.
• taking time to see things in a new way.
• seeking to enjoy another person’s ways when they differ from our own.
• wanting what is right even if that means being alone and misunderstood.
• being true and honest about who our friends are even when they are from the other side of the tracks.
• loving deeply even when we don’t always understand.
• praying for the person who hurts us.
• giving to something we don’t fully understand because friendship is more important.
• going against our own culture for the sake of a friend.
• celebrating with strangers.
• being vulnerable in a strange place.
• listening to one another’s stories even when don’t understand.
• even being willing to die for those you consider your enemy.
All of these things enable us to start loving people we once hated. They allow us to start going to places we would never have gone before. We risk going into unfamiliar places in pursuit of true community. But once we achieve true community, we find we have new places where we are known, loved, and appreciated, where we accept advice from unlikely sources and where improbable people take risks for our sakes.
It’s all good, it’s all sweet, it’s all risky, and it’s all somehow possible.
The promise of Revelation 5 only eludes us because we aren’t willing to go the distance with people who are different from us. I believe with all my heart that our joy in loving community is incomplete if that community is monocultural. We can only know God’s full blessing when we are loving all of our neighbors, when we have put Christ’s kingdom first, ahead of our prejudices, our comfort, and our culture’s ways. We can and must love the Samaritans, the Babylonians, and the Ninevites in our lives.
What a testimony that would be for the world around us! The mark of the follower of Christ is love for one another. But the world is not impressed by those who love only their own family, their own tribe or fraternity. It’s when we allow the love of Christ in us to be expressed through us to those of other ethnicities and nationalities that the unbelieving culture will sit up and take notice.
This is why the case of love and forgiveness by the Charleston families moves us so much. When we see the forgiveness of Jacob DeShazer toward his Japanese captors, we recognize the supernatural in it. We know that the compassion of African American slave women for the children of their masters is not a purely human thing, but that Christ’s love animates it. When we understand that the relatives of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint gave the rest of their lives to bring God’s love to the tribal people who killed them, we stand in awe in the presence of the Prince of Peace.
I’ve had glimpses in my own life of the supernatural joy of loving those who are vastly different from me. I’ve seen many who have taken chances and come out on the other side with incredible relationships that last a lifetime. My life has been made so much fuller by loving different people from around the world and across the street.
Why don’t you give it a shot? Why don’t you grab an opportunity to go to a place where you’re not supposed to be? Why don’t you invest your time and treasures in a relationship? Why don’t you become foolish in the world’s eyes to see if the impossible can come to life? We are all one people, and we have more in common than we think. We just don’t push ourselves to embrace those commonalities. Our culture and forces all around us tell us not to trust, not to reach across those walls, not to listen to one another’s stories, not to consider the other side of the story, not to believe God’s picture of his kingdom on earth. What if God meant for us to find our true selves only in relationship with one another? What if all we have to do is take a step toward those relationships— and then God will manifest the power that raised Christ from the dead?
I know the road before us is not going to be easy. I expect it to be filled with hard places and difficult people. The work involved may seem overwhelming as we press for unity, peace, and equality. But we know what the end could look like— what God has shown us in Revelation 5. This doesn’t mean moving past the hard relationships too quickly, or discounting the need for the difficult confrontation of systems of power and injustice. In fact, we need to enter into this with eyes wide open, fully aware of the trials inherent to such a commitment to relationship.
We are in the middle of a very divisive moment. The winds of discord are blowing hard. We are in a conflict-ridden conversation and it’s troublesome. But our current way of living and relating will only lead to destruction. There is hope, and that hope rests in our ability to honor one another in the strength of deep relationship. We’ll use one of the most powerful Forces we know to weave us into harmony, and allow the essence of our cultures, creativity, and hearts to help us solve our largest problems. We are God’s creation, made from one place. We are different because God is so vast, alike because he is one. Let’s embrace the Spirit of God that rests in us all.
Leroy Barber is a pastor, writer, activist and community builder. This article is excerpted from Embrace by Leroy Barber. Copyright (c) 2016 by Leroy Barber. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.