In August of 2014, Not long after Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, and much of that town erupted in protest, I noticed a clear division among my social media contacts. It wasn’t so much a “Pro-Brown/Pro-Wilson” divide, though I did see the debate manifesting in that way. What I was finally able to articulate was this:
“Two deep divisions I’m noticing in conversations on Ferguson, MO: disagreement on whether the criminal justice system is truly, consistently just, and a perhaps even deeper divide in understandings of racism as either systemic evil or a personal character flaw.”
Since August, the story in Ferguson has remained in America’s conscience, as property was destroyed during protests, as a grand jury decided not to pursue charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, as the Justice Department released a scathing report citing examples of ways the Ferguson police department exploited race and poverty in order to generate more income for the municipality, and even high profile shootings of unarmed African-American men, women, and, in at least one case, a child, have made the news. The College of Regional Ministers of my Church recently released a pastoral letter in response to the killing of unarmed men, and as you might predict, debate exploded along the deep divisions I noted. As I watched the embers ignite again, my thoughts turned to way in which the debate has deeply bothered me–perhaps best symbolized, again, in a Social Media microcosmic “War of Hashtags”: #blacklivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter.
I have to admit, there are things about both slogans, hashtagged or not, that render me unsteady (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing). In order to try to explain why, I’m going to turn to the Bible—or, more accurately, as a Vanderbilt Divinity School grad, I’m going to turn to one point of scholarly consensus concerning the Bible.
Don’t Snore Yet. I promise I have a great analogy here.
Most folks who have studied the New Testament in an academic setting understand a few things: 1) the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not verbatim reporting or objective histories. They tell the story of Jesus’s life and death, and they are infused with theological concerns and perspectives. 2) The authors do not agree on everything and do not interpret all of the stories of Jesus’s life and ministry in the same way. 3) Three of the Gospels (called the synoptics because they are written from a similar point of view) draw on both shared and independent resources, as well as on one another, for the stories that make their narratives.
All of this means that there are stories in the three Gospels that seem similar but make slightly different points, share similar narratives but differ on geography, or fit into the Gospel’s chronology in different ways. And sometimes, if you’re interpreting the Gospel(s) as a person of faith, this means that you have some thinking to do, and perhaps some choices to make.
In terms of what I’m writing about today, I have in mind the first saying attributed to Jesus in Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” and the first in Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,”(The translation below is from the New Revised Standard Version):
From Luke 6:20: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (emphasis mine)
Lots of ink has been spilled discussing the relationship between the two books and the variations on these two verses They are roughly contemporary, with most scholars working with the hypothesis that Matthew was written around 80-90 (or perhaps 70-110) C.E., and Luke was written around 80-100 C.E. Both books emphasize aspects of Jesus’s teachings in different ways, and scholars have worked hard to reconstruct the community contexts that may have driven editorial concerns for the writers of these gospels.
At the end of the day, though, no one was able to YouTube Jesus’s sermon, so we not only cannot definitively describe the topography, we can’t definitively say for certain which version of the saying is the original one, or if they both edited a shared source (oral or written) that read differently. Did Matthew try to make Jesus’s teachings more metaphorical and sell out the poor for an audience with means? Did Luke make Jesus’s spiritual concerns more material? I don’t know. I do think it’s an important conversation for scholars and people of faith to consider, but until a scroll of the saying (or that YouTube video…ha!) that’s dated somewhere between 30-40 C.E. is discovered, we are left to re-examine manuscripts, re-construct contexts, and re-test hypotheses to get to the “core” of Jesus’s teachings.
But if you’re part of a church, if you call yourself a follower of Jesus, or if you just admire him as a moral force in history, this scholarly read is secondary. You want to know what this means. In the real world.
For me, it’s this: The work of the church is about healing the hurting and rebuilding the broken, and that should lead us to build a pretty wide tent of who we serve. Yes, that means serving the poor in spirit–the addict, the mentally ill person, the person estranged from their family. But that NEVER trumps serving the homeless, the hungry, the refugee. If you call yourself a follower of Jesus, you are called to be in solidarity with voiceless people who have no economic clout. And you can bet that if someone is living in poverty, “poverty of the spirit” is a reality of their life, as well.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit” does not contradict “Blessed are the poor”–it should be a complement. But even more importantly, it is not corrective. It should be heard in a way that listens and legitimizes the concerns of people whose suffering may or may not have an economic component, but it should not be heard in a way that privileges the needs of those who are not poor above those who are.
We’ve all been poor in spirit at some point in our lives, but not all of us have been poor. That makes it harder to empathize, and let’s be honest–despite the occasional misadventure that becomes a romanticized movie about a teacher or aid worker, there ain’t nothing pretty about poverty. Building real relationship across class lines is harder than it sounds.
Which brings me back to the analogy that has helped me clarify my thinking about the fault lines I was talking about in the first place.
For me, there’s a similar relationship between #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter as there is for “Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are the poor in Spirit.” Of course ALL lives matter–and that should be the fundamental commitment that leads us to proclaim that #blacklivesmatter. Unfortunately, in the wild, weird world of social media, #alllivesmatter has often been used to correct or condescend. As a credo, #alllivesmatter may, on the surface, seem to be inclusive of all, but it’s a very circumscribed “all,” which isn’t “all,” at all.
At best, it naively minimizes the concerns of a particular community and ethnic group, suggests that racism is not a systemic problem in 2015 America, only the problem of a few bad apples, or dismisses questions of accountability for our law enforcement mechanisms. In its worst incarnation, It comes loaded with a subtext–concern and critiques that name racism are just “race-baiting,” and the death of an eighteen year old is a guilty verdict. At its very worst, it’s declaring that #alllivesmatter, but if you’re a “thug,” you deserve a bullet, not a trial.
Look, I’m not naive. I know this shows my hand as to what side of the divide I fall on, and if you don’t believe racism is systemic, this will not be your “come to Jesus” moment. While yes, there’s a part of me that does agree when I read the “Not every black person is a thug, not every cop is a racist, get beyond labels” meme that has made its way around our heavily-inhabited social media world, I don’t think the discussion ends there. (Shoot, I don’t think any meme ends any conversation; hence this ridiculously long post.) I do believe systemic racism is America’s original sin. I confess it in my own life and I see it in our cities, policies, and laws. Getting past your personal prejudices is important, hard work, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve ended American racism.
The real work is harder than that. It takes more than a hashtag, more than marching, and much more than a long-winded blog entry. But all of those things are a start, and tell the story of what you really care about.
This post was picked up by Patheos. You can find it here.