DO ALL LIVES MATTER?The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For. By Wayne Gordon and John M. Perkins. Foreword by Senator Dick Durbin, Afterword by Richard J. Mouw. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. 92 pages.
Do all lives matter? I could answer that question with an unqualified yes. After all, when it comes to human lives, my theology declares that every human being is created in the image of God. That means that every human life is sacred. Unfortunately, the very fact that the Black Lives Matter movement arose after several African Americans were killed by police or what I will call vigilantes (George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin), suggests that we’ve not reached the point when our society truly believes that all lives matter.
After the Black Lives Matter movement was born, an alternative “movement” arose, largely among white Americans who didn’t appreciate the view offered by the Black Lives Movement. It reflected the view held by many in the majority culture, that everything would be wonderful if those in the non-majority would just get with the program and “assimilate.” That is, if everyone would embrace “color blindness” and stop complaining about past wrongs. You might say that the “All Lives Matter” sentiment is an expression of what some call “White fragility.” Moving forward toward the vision held out to the American people by Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” will require some real soul searching on the part of many, including many in the church. To get there we’ll need some help in creating conversations that lead to change. That is what the authors of this book intend. This brief, but hard-hitting book, what was once referred to as a “broadside,” offers us food for thought.
The primary authors of this book are two Evangelical Christian leaders, one white and one black. While they would agree that all lives matter, they also understand that not every life is valued equally in our society. This book emerged from a deep friendship forged over time between two men from very diverse backgrounds. Both authors believe strongly in the importance of reconciliation, but they understand that there is a lot of work to be done before reconciliation can be achieved. Part of that work occurs through the Christian Community Development Association, which the two men co-founded.
One of the authors is John Perkins, an 86-year-old African American man, who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of civil rights and building bridges across ethnic lines. This book follows on his recently published memoir—Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (Baker, 2017)—which is itself a worthwhile read. Wayne Gordon is a white evangelical pastor who serves a multi-ethnic congregation in a predominantly African American section of Chicago—North Lawndale. Together they raise weighty issues about race, reconciliation, and justice.
There is a very urgent tone to this book. The issues are too important to put off with pietistic platitudes about being color-blind. They understand only too well that things are reaching a boiling point, and they are especially discouraged by what they see as the unwillingness on the part of the majority of white evangelicals to face the realities of our day. They are frustrated by the unwillingness among many in their own Evangelical community to accept responsibility for the way things are or the way history has transpired.
Getting back to the question of the day, "do all lives matter?" Again, we would all like to say yes to that question, but as the authors remind us, "the concept of all people being equal—and all lives mattering equally—exists as an aspiration, not as a reality" (p. 19). Until aspiration turns into reality, we cannot in good conscience make declarations that "all lives matter." Even if the authors might not agree at all points with the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement, they agree that until American society recognizes that black lives do matter, then we cannot say "all lives matter." In other words, race still matters in America.
Since the question of whether all lives matter arose because of the rise of the Black Lives Matters movement, that’s where the conversation starts. Then, having laid out the issues at hand, the two authors tell their own stories, which is followed by the story of race in America. Thus, we start with the contemporary scene, then move to the personal, and then we engage history. We must deal with history, because Americans need to own up to the dark side of our history. That means acknowledging the stain of slavery and Jim Crow on American life. It also requires that we recognize the genocide perpetrated on Native Americans in the name of Manifest Destiny. It also requires that we acknowledge the long struggle on the part of women to gain the equality promised in the Declaration of Independence. Of course, they are not alone. As Wayne Gordon confesses, "I must admit that at times I feel embarrassed upon realizing my unmerited privilege" (p. 43). This is a confession I must make as well. A chapter titled "Invisible People" raises important questions about the subtle ways in which women and people of color find themselves ignored and excluded from conversations. The authors note that “to the extent that they go unheard and unnoticed, they get the message that their lives don’t matter” (p. 45).
If the first half of the book lays out the problem, the second half offers some ways in which we can respond, as Christians to this stain on our society. They start with what they believe is common ground that can unite people of good faith in a process of healing the nation. This involves a recognition that people of good will, including law enforcement officials and Black Lives Matter activists, want to achieve peace and justice. Building on that foundation, the authors lay out a Christian response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In doing so they affirm much of the critique offered by the Black Lives Matter Movement, but suggest that this can’t be the end game. Reconciliation remains the goal, even if it will be difficult getting there. They note that "reconciliation will not happen as part of a normal course of events. It has to be intentional" (p. 64). That intentionality comes through in a chapter titled "From Tears to Action,” in which Gordon recounts a worship service in which he took up a passage from Zechariah that spoke of children playing in the streets without fear. As he preached the sermon he broke into tears (both services). He recognized that the tears were a sign of understanding, but that understanding wasn’t enough. Understanding needs to be put into action. One of those actions was the development and training of people within his congregation to be trained in non-violent responses to provocation, and then go out into the community and teach the same techniques, hoping that this would calm the tensions in the air.
In the chapter titled "Let Us Sow Love," the authors take this a further step and offer eleven possible responses to the crisis at hand. The responses begin with prayer (specifically the Prayer of St. Francis), and include building relationships across ethnic lines as well as with people who are different in age, education, politics, and more. As they note, it's not about being right or wrong in our views, it is developing the ability to look at life from different angles. It might involve moving into a diverse community. In other words, most of these recommendations push us out of our homogeneous cocoons. They also involve pursuing things like restorative justice and working with police. In their closing chapter, they speak of hope and the premise that all lives do matter. Getting there, however, will take a lot of work.
Being that I come to this book as one who lives outside the evangelical world, I might want to suggest that we progressives have got it together. We’ve embraced the cause of social justice, and we’re already out there in the streets, advocating for change. Of course, that isn’t really true. Yes, there are strong social justice movements, but they include evangelicals, Catholics, mainliners, and others from across the religious spectrum. Besides, the same tensions that exist in the evangelical community exist within the more "liberal" mainline Protestant world. Otherwise, all our congregations would be multi-cultural/multi-ethnic, but that isn’t true. Not only that, being that I am a white male pastor, I must own my own privileged place in society. Therefore, even though the authors address the evangelical community, the word the share with their community, applies equally across the Christian community. The recognition that all lives matter remains an aspiration and not a reality even among those of us who see ourselves as more progressive in our thinking.
There is much to commend about this book. Even though it doesn’t come with a study guide, it will serve as an excellent resource for those ready to have serious conversations about ethnicity and faith, justice and reconciliation, conversations that need to take place in our congregations. While some may find the brevity problematic (not enough about solutions, for example), the very brevity of the book makes it more likely to be read and discussed. That’s the whole point!