An Academic Argument for why Christians Should Not Use the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Catchphrase
By A. D. Powers, PhD. Professor of Philosophy
Christian Action League
June 19, 2020
The struggle throughout the Reformation of the sixteenth century was caught up in a political and theological battle over the phrase, “This is my body.” The Reformers were united over several doctrines, but nothing more than the Lord’s Supper proved itself to be such a Shibboleth. Lutherans were arguing for Consubstantiation, Calvinists were arguing for a spiritual presence, and the Anabaptists were arguing for a memorial view. Regardless of the way present-day theologians want to approach the political and theological climate of the 16th century, one must recognize that our use of slogans matter, and sometimes slogans divide.
Let us suppose for the sake of argument a pro-choice organization decided to take the slogan, “This is my body” and use it as the motto for their abortion clinic. Their manager, Sally, claims the slogan may have a historic Christian use and meaning entirely different from the clinic’s, but for her, it is a motto to defend her pro-choice politics. Several criticisms could be catapulted at Sally’s use or abuse of the watchword. Christians throughout the world would be outraged over the clinic’s use of the slogan. They would consider it a direct assault against the substitutionary atonement and the Church’s historic understanding of the Sacrament. Sally could embrace the slogan, if and only if, through an act of cognitive dissonance she ripped the phrase of its entire historical use and understanding. Even then, Sally’s use would cause great division throughout society. The reason is because slogans matter, and sometimes slogans divide.
Today we are living in an era divided over the use of slogans. Social media is filled with mottos; however, one catchphrase has captured the hearts and minds of most Americans: #Black Lives Matter. This phrase raises several questions: How should Christians view the BLM movement? Is it a neutral phrase simply meaning, “We value black lives and people?” Can the phrase be used apart from BLM’s stated mission and beliefs? Let us try to answer some of these questions.
Black Lives Matter is a clear and defined movement. BLM offers a clear set of beliefs and 13 guiding principles defining the parameters of their movement. The principles are: Restorative Justice; Empathy; Loving Engagement; Diversity; Globalism; Queer Affirming; Trans Affirming; Collective Value; Intergenerational; Black Families; Black Villages; Unapologetically Black; and Black Women.
Several members of #BigEva (which is a term used to cover the broader and bigger movement classically known as evangelicalism) are divided over the proper way the Church ought to position itself towards the BLM movement. On the one hand, you have those who fall under the big #BigEva tent who affirm the movement and each of its tenets.
On the other hand, you have those within #BigEva who reject the movement because its tenets are fundamentally at odds within historic Christian belief (i.e., social justice, queer affirming, trans affirming, and so forth).
For whatever it is worth, the vast majority of #BigEva finds itself in neither of these categories, but in a “Third-Way” approach. Explicitly, they claim evangelicals can still affirm in a generic sense “Black Lives Matter” without embracing the Black Lives Matter movement. For the sake of this article, we are going to investigate the consistency of “third way approaches” to BLM.
First, because BLM is a clear and defined movement, it is inappropriate for evangelicals to fundamentally change the meaning of the slogan for our purposes. The framers of the BLM movement gave the phrase a definite meaning and use, and to reduce the phrase to just mean “We value black lives and people” is to abuse the author’s original intention.
Christians would be outraged if a pro-choice organization used the saying, “This is my body” for a pro-choice movement because it is fundamentally at odds with Scripture’s understanding of the sanctity of human life and the New Testament author’s original meaning and use of the phrase. Similarly, even as pious as it sounds, evangelicals must be consistent with their methodology and realize their use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is fundamentally at odds with the vision and scope of the BLM organization’s original authorial meaning as defined by its beliefs and 13 guiding principles.
Classic evangelicals are adamant they do not want readers to determine the meaning of texts, whether it be the biblical text or the Constitution; therefore, consistency demands we allow the framers of the BLM movement to determine the meaning of their texts, not later evangelical readers who misappropriate and redefine the meaning of the term “Black Lives Matter” for their own purposes.
Second, the reactions by committed advocates of BLM to new and contrary slogans demonstrate the BLM movement: 1) Desires to set and determine the meaning and use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter”; 2) Opposes all contrary uses of the term (i.e., “We value black lives and black people” apart from the BLM founding vision); and 3) Finds third-way uses of the term confusing and unhelpful to their movement.
BLM is totalitarian in its approach. They want to set the terms of the debate and remove all opposing voices. For example, if someone responds, “All Lives Matter!” they typically view that competing slogan as hostile to their movement because it fundamentally levels the playing field between races and does not offer special significance to the cultural understanding of “blackness” as defined by their movement. Also, if someone were to say something like, “I am colorblind towards different races” the BLM movement rejects that slogan because it does not value the “blackness of the individual.”
Proponents of Critical Social Justice fundamentally understand people as groups, not as individuals. To view a person apart from their race is to misunderstand one of the fundamental features of the group, and all members of that ethnic group. Therefore, third-way approaches in practice gut the term “Black Lives Matter” of its original meaning and burn down bridges of unity with members of the black community who embrace BLM, since BLM forbids any contrary narratives and aberrant uses of the term.
Third, J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is an advocate of third-way approaches believes it is helpful to use the term “Black Lives Matter” and reject the use of “All Lives Matter,” because the former calls out real injustices and sympathizes with people of color, while the latter downplays or minimizes those injustices.
Greear uses the illustration of a group of people at a restaurant who sit down for a meal. Each person at the table receives their food except Bob. Someone says, “Bob didn’t get his food and Bob deserves food.” (In his illustration, Greear’s use of the phrase “Bob Deserves Food” is likened to “Black Lives Matter,” and Bob not getting his food is equivalent to systemic racism and/or racial injustice). Then another person responds, “All of us deserve food.” Greear believes this response fundamentally misses the point that an injustice has taken place, and we should call out the fact Bob deserves his food. Greear also claims now is not the time to start quoting facts and statistics concerning different injustices throughout various groups. Rather, we must sympathize with POC, and one way to do so is to embrace the use of the term “Black Lives Matter,” while denying the BLM organization’s original vision and focus.
As charitable as Greear’s approach may sound, it is fundamentally inconsistent. First, Greear has imported a reader response theory into his approach allowing us, not the organization, to determine the meaning of the motto “Black Lives Matter.” Second, if we are going to take Greear’s analogy and liken it unto systemic racism, we would have to expand the analogy to multiple restaurants where “Bob” is routinely and structurally discriminated against due to something inherent within “Bob.” This act would need to happen at such a statistically high rate that it would be recognizable not only to Bob but others throughout society. The problem with Greear’s analogy is he provides a localized and singular event and applies it to a structural and repeated event; hence, it is a false analogy. Third, Greear also takes Bob to be an individual, where as “Black Lives Matter” takes Bob to be a group.
For Greear’s analogy to work he would have to demonstrate that “all Bobs” or the “vast majority of Bobs” are discriminated against and do not get their food. This would require a series of facts and statistics across multiples lines of evidence. If proven true, the proper slogan ought to be “All Bobs Deserve Food,” not just this individual Bob, who was clearly wronged in this individual instance, deserves food. The problem with Greear’s illustration is it takes an individual injustice and misapplies it to an entire group of “Bobs.”
Fourth, Greear downplays the use of facts in the conversation. This “lack of facts” approach is contrary to a Christian theory of fact, which recognizes each fact is a fact because the God of Trinitarian theism made it a fact useful for understanding the world. Greear inconsistently cites an instance (i.e., fact) where Bob was discriminated against as motivation to sympathize with Bob.
Can we cite facts or not? It seems like third-way approaches like to cite facts when they favor their narrative, and they restrict the citation of facts when they disprove their narrative. In short, Bob is an individual, not a group; Bob experienced a singular injustice, not a systemic injustice; and to prove Bob’s systemic problem would require material evidence. The difference between the two Bobs is what makes Greear’s analogy a leap in logic.
How should Christians approach the use of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter”? We ought to reject the use of the phrase. The fundamental beliefs and guiding principles are contrary to the biblical vision for faith and practice.
In theory one can make a distinction between a Christian use of the phase and the BLM movement, even though in practice no one in society who embraces the movement will accept that type of distinction. Christians currently need to let Scripture be our sufficient guide to determine both our understanding of humanity and our slogans in society. Christians should be content to use and fight for the phrase, “All Lives Matter” because from the Christian worldview, God is the Creator of “All Lives.” God has fashioned all of humanity in the imago Dei. Slogans matter, and sometimes slogans divide; and in this instance, Christians must divide from their use of the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.”