[Joe Hellerman, PhD]
The following post has been circulating on Facebook.
Two thousand years ago,
Jesus ended the debate on which lives matter.
He died for all.
Powerful, huh? The statement is true. Biblically true.
But this post bothered me. It bothered me a lot. And this, in turn, created a cognitive dilemma. I could not get it off my mind. As I sat practicing the piano several hours later, I kept asking myself,
Why would a central biblical truth—one to which this New Testament professor has dedicated my entire adult life—trouble me so much, when I see it displayed on a large poster on Facebook? Shouldn’t I rejoice that the gospel is going forth?
After some reflection, I realized that I have several problems with Christians sharing sentiments like these—phrased like this—in our current social context. Truth is important. But sometimes timing is even more so. As the author of Proverbs wrote, “A word in season, how good it is!” (15:23)
PROBLEM ONE — The post explicitly takes the focus off the issue at hand.
Yes, Jesus died for all. But not all are currently being equally marginalized and brutalized by our criminal justice system. The post, obviously written in response to the BLM movement, fails completely to acknowledge the pressing social reality that generated the movement to begin with.
Perhaps an analogy will help. There are eighty-eight keys on my digital piano. When all the keys are working, I can happily assert, “All keys matter.” But when a bank of six of those piano keys suddenly goes silent, I don’t need to be reminded that all keys matter. I need to take my keyboard to the repair shop, identify the problem, and trust the technician to direct all his resources to fix that bank of broken keys. Because at a time like this, it is the bank of broken keys—and only the bank of broken keys—that really matters. At a time like this, some keys matter more than others.
As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12).
PROBLEM TWO — “Jesus ended the debate.”
I find this assertion offensive and even potentially dangerous, though I trust that the author did not intend it to have this effect. The “debate” is not—and has never been—about whose lives matter most to God (a theological issue). The debate that has generated the BLM movement is about the treatment of black Americans by our criminal justice system, and about the broader racial inequities of American society as a whole (social issues). To somehow imply (as the post inevitably will imply to some) that Jesus has ended that debate, is to leverage Christianity to shut down public discourse on an issue that is, in fact, near to the heart of God. And this comes dangerously close to what the Bible means when it warns us not to “take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
The post thus naively tosses theological truth at a social crisis in a way that will inevitably be hurtful to (and even inflame) those who will misunderstand the author’s intentions. And this brings me to a final problem I have with the post.
PROBLEM THREE — The way in which the message will be heard.
I want to be generous and assume that the post was well-intended, that the author wanted to say something to the effect of “Black lives matter because all lives matter to God.” Again, this is certainly the case theologically.
In our current context, however, good intentions—even good intentions wedded to biblical truth—are not enough. They are not even what’s most important.
What counts right now, when we think we have something to contribute to the conversation, is how we are heard by others. And whether we like it or not, we must take responsibility for how we are heard, even for how we might be misinterpreted, even when what we say is biblically sound.
It is important to recognize that when we offer timeless theological truths to folks deeply engaged in pressing social issues, our words will generally be heard sociologically, not theologically.
It is hardly surprising, then, that when persons involved in today’s BLM movement hear us say, “All lives matter to God,” they are not hearing us agree with them by offering theological support to their position, as if we are saying, “Black lives matter, because all lives matter to God.”
Instead, they are hearing us challenge their social convictions by saying something to the effect of, “All lives matter, not just yours. Our lives matter, too.”
The problem with this should be obvious. Everyone already knows our lives matter. White evangelicals generally live in the better parts of town, we get into better colleges and universities, we work higher-paying jobs, and our kids go to better schools (public and private). And we do not die at the hands of law enforcement as often proportionally as African Americans. Our lives already matter.
Let me come at this from another angle. One respondent who commented on the post on Facebook helpfully distinguished between kingdom truth, on the one hand, and the very different realities of our daily lives in the public arena, on the other.
To God all lives matter. The ground is level at the foot of the cross. These are kingdom truths.
But we don’t spend most our lives on that level ground of the doctrine of the atonement, do we? The lived experience of our daily routine is anything but level ground. Instead, the terrain we navigate is ruggedly uneven.
Some of us climb mountains of opportunity to success. Others are stuck in valleys of oppression and failure. Numbers of black Americans, in particular, have found themselves trapped deep in the valleys of America’s rugged social terrain for most of our nation’s history.
And it is from the depths of these valleys of social injustice that persons involved in a movement like BLM hear our ill-timed theological platitudes.
We must proclaim the gospel. Truth matters. But so does timing—even more so during the present crisis.
If white evangelicals wish authentically and credibly to declare to marginalized people groups that that Jesus died for all, that all lives matter, that the ground is level at the foot of the cross, we will need to (a) acknowledge the social injustices of the world in which we live, (b) hear the experiences of our black brothers and sisters in Christ, and (c) do what we can to address these issues in both public and private settings.
At the end of the day we do come full circle. Social justice does finds its roots in good theology. In this regard, I would maintain that it is precisely because all lives matter to God that we should currently join the chorus and boldly assert, “Black lives matter!”
For the church in America “Black lives matter!” has become “a word in season” (Proverbs 15:23). I only regret that is has taken us this long to get on board.
About Joe Hellerman, PhD: Having taught at Talbot for over a decade, Dr. Joe Hellerman is the author of When the Church was a Family as well as Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Dr. Hellerman currently teaches on the side, and enjoys playing keyboard in a classic rock band. He also serves as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in California. Hellerman’s commentary on Philippians is one of the best commentaries I have come across (see below).