We shouldn’t ignore calls for racial justice, even when we don’t like the way they sound.
At a now infamous Bernie Sanders rally in August of 2015, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement collided with Seattle progressives in dramatic fashion. Labor activists and other Sanders supporters had gathered in downtown Seattle, and right before Bernie was about to take the stage for his speech, a small group of BLM activists rushed the platform. At the center of this interruption was a young woman whose interesting story continues to polarize observers on the left and right. Marissa Johnson, who graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in Christian Theology, was right in the middle of the rally’s BLM protest, and she did not pull any punches at the mic.
Johnson commandeered the podium with scathing condemnations of Seattle’s racist past and present. She outlined Seattle’s many offenses in various arenas: land stolen from the Duwamish (after whom Seattle is named), a federal investigation that condemned the Seattle Police Department for racially disproportionate use of force (which is ongoing), stark racial inequalities in public education (they are striking), the indiscriminate incarceration of black and brown youth, widespread gentrification in historically diverse neighborhoods (that’s true, too), and the list went on. What happened next was interesting. While some in the overwhelmingly white crowd initially tolerated the interruption, as time went on the rhetoric on both sides escalated. The proposed moment of silence (four minutes for the four hours Michael Brown’s slain body laid in the streets of Ferguson) quickly devolved into a shouting match, mostly dominated by epithets and profanities from the crowd being hurled at the protestors for their perceived lack of “civility.”
Black lives matter in all places because we should value the unique experiences, stories, and bodies of all people—and, this is crucial,—especially those whose lives are more precarious because of particular histories and contemporary realities of violence and injustice.
On the surface, the question, “Do black lives matter,” may seem like a silly one—of course they do! Black lives matter in all places because we should value the unique experiences, stories, and bodies of all people—and, this is crucial,—especially those whose lives are more precarious because of particular histories and contemporary realities of violence and injustice. Yet, as the above incident illustrates, there’s often a lack of agreement (even among those on the same side of the political aisle) on how to address the stark inequalities that define different life experiences across color lines. We can agree that black lives do indeed matter, but often the local question is more difficult: how do black lives matter in a place like Seattle, with its particular history, geography, and culture(s)?
There is a disturbing silence from many churches on this very question. Perhaps our Christian lives have been entangled with the good intentions of colorblindness more than we’d like to admit. Or we may subscribe to the enticing illusion of “post-racial” diversity; Seattle is a colorful place, right? We’re a port city on the Pacific Rim, a cultural center for education and the arts, and a progressive, left-leaning bastion of liberal politics. “Diversity” is in the air here—how could you miss it? (Never mind the fact that Seattle is among the whitest large cities in the country, and for many people of color, the least diverse place they’ve ever lived.)
Johnson roots her activism firmly in her Christian faith, and in so doing, she challenges the local Body of Christ to listen (even if there’s some shouting). How is the church being called to account for the pain, violence, and loss that has afflicted so many of our sisters and brothers of color? In what ways has the silence of the church been complicit in the many injustices that (as author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reminds us) “all land, with great violence, upon the body?” For many Christians in Seattle and beyond, our racial sins are often sins of omission more than commission. But is our inaction, rationalization, or isolation from black lives any less destructive if the outcomes remain the same?
As a longtime resident and citizen of King County, which bears Martin Luther King’s name, I’m reminded of MLK’s great work of wisdom, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was penned in response to an open letter King had read from local clergy. The letter, titled “A Call to Unity,” was written by a group of white pastors in Alabama who agreed with King’s cause in principle, but objected to his “unorthodox” methods. They expressed sympathy for the indignities of Jim Crow segregation, and felt King’s theological rationale was sound and correct. They agreed his aims were righteous and biblical, but they strongly objected to his use of civil disobedience, and the ways his “agitation” was taken to the streets. Couldn’t he be more moderate, patient, and “respectable,” they pleaded? Why couldn’t he wait for the courts to work it out over time? King’s response could be summed up simply: “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Nearly five decades after King’s assassination, respectability politics cows us into silence.
It’s difficult to miss the parallels between the aversions those Alabama pastors had toward King’s methods and the unease many white Christians feel about the Black Lives Matter movement. Nearly five decades after King’s assassination, respectability politics cows us into silence. Many movements of social change that Christians have catalyzed and sustained through the ages—the end of infanticide, the abolition of slavery, and education for all, just to name a few—have been an affront to the sensibilities and status quo of moderation, patience, and respectability.
This certainly doesn’t mean that haphazard radicalism is the only tool in our ongoing struggles to value all lives equally. But perhaps it should mean—as the Apostle Paul instructs—“if one part [of the Body] suffers, every part suffers with it” (2 Cor. 12:26). How will we listen more closely, and with more humility, to the suffering of our neighbors? And why is it so difficult to imagine these neighbors as members of our own body?
Seattle is wonderful place that I love, and I’ve invested nearly all of my adult life in its beautiful and complex people, communities, neighborhoods, and churches. I’m a proud Husky, enthusiastic Seahawk fan, conscientious coffee consumer, and engaged neighbor in the Rainier Valley. And it’s because I love this place and Christ’s Body that I share my concern about the tenuous state of black lives in this city. Do black lives matter in Seattle? They do, they must, and we must realize this costly truth together.