An earlier version of this post was published on January 13th, 2016. While the overall argument remains the same, I have made some emendations to more accurately describe InterVarsity’s stance towards #BlackLivesMatter.
On December 28th InterVarsity ignited controversy within the American evangelical world by choosing to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement at their triennial Urbana 15 Missions conference. During the evening’s keynote Michelle Higgins, a Saint Louis based worship leader and activist, urged evangelicals to support the movement, arguing that:
Black Lives Matter is not a mission of hate. It is a not a mission to bring about incredible anti-Christian values and reforms to the world. Black Lives Matter is a movement on mission in the truth of God.
Many in the evangelical world disagree, arguing that Black Lives Matter is a dangerous, radically leftist movement that is hostile to traditional Christian values. Some suggest that by supporting such a movement InterVarsity has abandoned their evangelical heritage. Others, on the other hand, have reacted equally strongly, encouraging the move and arguing that it represents just the latest in a long history of risky, prophetic stands that InterVarsity has taken on race and justice issues. Most of the disagreement, however, stems from differing interpretations of what Black Lives Matter is and what it is all about.
In his very helpful October 2015 Los Angeles Times article, “Why the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ can be so confusing”, Matthew Pearce puts our challenge in a nutshell:
Black Lives Matter is a slogan, it’s an organization, it’s a movement. But those three don’t always overlap.
Protesters who chant “Black lives matter!” might not necessarily be members of the Black Lives Matter Network, a formal activist group with chapters in many U.S. cities.
Further confusing things, many news organizations and commentators often use the term “Black Lives Matter” as the label for the largely leaderless and decentralized protest movement that has erupted across the country over the last two years….
So when you hear the term “Black Lives Matter,” the words could be serving as a political rallying cry or referring to the activist organization. Or it could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality.
So which is it? When InterVarsity staff don “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on social media, and say “Black lives matter” to their students, faculty, administrators, and communities, what exactly are they affirming? An idea? An ideology? A movement? An organization? What? Frankly, given the ambiguity and multivalence attached to the phrase/hashtag/slogan/name “Black Lives Matter,” much of the confusion around InterVarsity’s stance is completely understandable and should not surprise anyone.
We can begin to get some clarity on what InterVarsity does and does not affirm about #BlackLivesMatter by drawing some crucial distinctions between the Black Lives Matter hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement, the formal Black Lives Matter network, and, finally, the truth that Black lives matter. These distinctions emerge from the history and development of Black Lives Matter itself. In what follows I will be drawing primarily from Pearce’s article and Elizabeth Day’s July 2015 article from The Guardian, “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement.” Please read their articles if you want the fuller background to my argument.
In the beginning were the words:
Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.
Alicia Garza was sitting in a bar with her husband and some friends when she posted those words on Facebook in July 2013 in response to the announcement of the “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman, the nightwatchman who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black, seventeen year old. The post was “essentially a love note to black people.”
Garza’s post inspired her close friend and fellow activist Patrisse Cullors, who reposted her words on her Facebook feed adding the now ubiquitous hashtag #blacklivesmatter. The next day Cullors and Garza met to discuss organizing a campaign. Shortly thereafter they reached out to another activist friend, Opal Tometti, who set up #BlackLivesMatter Twitter and Tumblr accounts. A little more than a year later the catchphrase #BlackLivesMatter went viral in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the phrase found its way into one of Hillary Clinton’s speeches and an episode of Law & Order. Last January the American Dialect Society declared #blacklivesmatter to be 2014’s “word” of the year.
It should be noted that hashtags, not being ideas or inventions, are not subject to patent protection. Nor can they be copyrighted. Hashtags can, however, be trademarked, but to date neither #BlackLivesMatter or any of its cognates has been.
As the events in Ferguson developed Garza, Tometti, and Cullors found themselves in the midst of rapidly expanding, fervent grass-roots movement. In an interview with The Guardian when asked about the explosion of the #BlackLivesMatter message Garza responded, “This wasn’t something that we – you know…. We didn’t have a strategic plan.”
As Pearce points out, despite the official social media accounts and website, the movement is ultimately decentralized. He writes, “Social media drives the current movement. There is no single leader, or even a few leaders. Some activists prefer to call the movement ‘leaderful.'” In this respect, #BlackLivesMatter is not not unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. As Rev. Ephrem Smith has recently argued,
The Black Lives Matter Movement should be viewed in a similar fashion to the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement was much larger and more complex than just the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes, there was King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but there was also the NAACP, the Urban League, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers, as well as leaders such as Fannie Lou Hammer and Malcolm X. These groups and leaders didn’t always agree, and it wouldn’t be fair to take one group or person’s view and make it the position of the whole movement. The broad and complex Black Lives Matter Movement is bigger than one person or even one website bearing the now famous hashtag.
While Garza, Tometti, and Cullors have worked together to develop an official Black Lives Matter Network, they have not, to date, tried to restrict who uses the slogan or the hashtag, who marches or who posts on social media. They have not, in other words, tried to copyright “Black Lives Matter.” It remains a widespread, fundamentally grassroots movement with a message that remains public domain. As Garza said in a September 2015 interview with In These Times, “At the Black Lives Matter Network, we aren’t concerned with policing who is and who isn’t part of the movement…. If someone says they are part of the BLM movement, that’s true — if they’re working to make sure that Black lives do matter. But we don’t control the movement.”
Nevertheless, the women who initiated the social media phenomenon have in fact established an official Black Lives Matter Network that now boasts some 26 official chapters across the United States. You can learn about the guiding principles and the “herstory” of the Network at their website. According to the network’s website, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” One key element of the network’s ideology, which has deep roots in the Black Liberation Movement, is the identification of Black poverty, Black incarceration, and Black disenfranchisement specifically with State violence.
But perhaps a more significant feature of the network’s ideology is that it is thoroughly interwoven with LGBTQ identity politics. As the network’s website says, the BLM movement and network are “rooted in the labor and love of queer Black women” and, so, the network opposes patriarchy, heterosexism, heteronormativity, and the like. In this respect, the Black Lives Matter network is further to the left than even the older, straight male dominated Black liberation movement. They say on their website:
Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.
Of course, not every participant or leader in the broader Black Lives Matter movement affirms all of the values or goals of the Black Lives Matter network, a fact which the network’s website grudgingly acknowledges in a section on their website critiquing the broad appropriation of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” by other groups under the heading “The Theft of Black Queer Women’s Work.” The website opines in bold, large print:
When you design an event / campaign / et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice. It’s also hetero-patriarchal. Straight men, unintentionally or intentionally, have taken the work of queer Black women and erased our contributions….
In short, because not everyone in the broader BLM movement shares the official network’s specific ideological commitments in the areas of sexuality and gender, the network has at times had a somewhat tense relationship with the wider movement.
These tensions are felt acutely by Christian organizations that have entered the fray of the Black Lives Matter movement, InterVarsity being just the latest and perhaps most controversial. Serious questions have been raised as to whether Evangelicals should get involved with BLM at all. For instance, in a recent guest post at the blog Mere Orthodoxy Steven Wedgeworth argues that for evangelicals to support BLM without supporting everything BLM supposedly stands for amounts to highjacking BLM. The chief weakness in Wedgeworth’s argument is that it completely depends upon a total identification of Black Lives Matter with the network/website by that name, leaving no room for a broader movement, much less for a widely shared public sentiment (as in a social media hashtag or meme in the public domain). But as I think I’ve shown above, while it is true that Garza and Cullors coined the phrase around which the movement has coalesced, their network neither owns the hashtag nor controls the movement.
It is worth considering why #BlackLivesMatter has gone viral and, more to the point, why it has resonated with so many Christians. The headline-grabbing cases of black men (often unarmed) being killed with impunity by law enforcement and others—here we remember once again Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, to name a few—have troubled the consciences of many people who otherwise might have sat out of this conversation and have enraged minority communities that are tired of being treated as second or third class citizens. And, treated as second class citizens they are. While whites and blacks use illegal drugs at similar rates, blacks are more likely to be arrested on drug charges because they are more heavily policed (in the case of marijuana possession, blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested even though whites and blacks use marijuana at similar rates), and once arrested they are more likely than whites to serve time for drug convictions (blacks make up only 13% of the overall U.S. population, 35% of all drug arrests, and 46% of all drug convictions, even though whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates). We are not treated equally under the law. Nor do we enjoy equal opportunity in public. As recent studies have shown, “equal opportunity employers” are nearly three times as likely to offer interviews to job applicants with “white sounding names” (like Greg or Emily) than they are to applicants with “black sounding names” (like Jamal or Lakisha) even when the applicants’ credentials are identical. All the while we are aware that these conditions did not appear out of thin air, but rather are systemic leftovers from our country’s legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and de facto segregation.
The truth is that if we are all created in the image of God, if we are all created equal, then black lives do matter. And the truth is that in our current context it needs to be said that black lives matter. The truth is that we are not treated equally and, more to the point, black lives and black communities are under threat, threatened from within and threatened from without. The truth is that we should care and that we should act. And the truth is that all truth is God’s truth.
I am reminded of Tom Skinner’s controversial Urbana address, “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism,” which he delivered at the conference in 1970. In it he articulated a challenging theology of common grace, arguing that sometimes God’s word for our time is arrived at and announced by those outside the church long before it is embraced by those within the church. Here I must quote him at length:
…God will not be without a witness.
Understand that for those of us who live in the black community, it was not the evangelical who came and taught us our worth and dignity as black men. It was not the Bible-believing fundamentalist who stood up and told us that black was beautiful. It was not the evangelical who preached to us that we should stand on our two feet and be men, be proud that black was beautiful and that God could work his life out through our redeemed blackness. Rather, it took Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown and the Brothers to declare to us our dignity. God will not be without a witness.
But you see, the problem that we have is that we tend to think that truth can come only from those people we recognize to be anointed by God. That is the reason why when Martin Luther King came along and began to buck the system and began to do some things to help liberate black people, immediately we evangelicals wanted to know, “Is he born again? Does he preach the gospel?” Because you see, if we could just prove that Martin Luther King was not a Christian, if we could prove that he was not born again, if we could prove that he did not believe the Word of God, we could dismiss what he said. We could dismiss the truth. My friends, you must accept the fact that all truth is God’s truth, no matter who it comes from.
How, then, should we interpret InterVarsity’s call to support Black Lives Matter? First, I think we can say that InterVarsity has committed itself as a movement to acknowledging, declaring, and living out the truth expressed by the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It is a commitment to courageous and prophetic honesty about the plight of the Black community, and a call to defend the dignity of our Black brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors, wherever their lives and dignity are threatened or diminished. However, commitment to the truth that Black lives matter does not automatically commit one to any particular set of proposed policies or reforms. On the question of what to do about the truth that Black lives are under threat, there is room for disagreement and debate. Commitment to the truth that Black lives matter should be taken as beginning the conversation rather than foreclosing it. (Here, again, I recommend Ed Stetzer’s post at Christianity Today.) Secondly, I think we can say that InterVarsity has clearly encouraged their students and staff out of a commitment to the truth to engage the issues raised by the broader Black Lives Matter movement, whenever and wherever doing so would be appropriate and consonant with the vision, mission, values and theological commitments of InterVarsity. Thirdly, the Urbana conference vividly illustrated that some InterVarsity students and staff are choosing to use the language, the slogan, and particularly the hashtag “Black Lives Matter,” and that they are free to do so. But not all students and staff are so choosing, nor are students and staff required to do so. Individuals and chapters are free to choose whether or not to use this language or engage this movement based upon the mission priorities of their ministry contexts and the dictates of individuals’ consciences. But what about the network? Clearly some of the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter network are at odds with some of the central values and commitments of InterVarsity, entailing that involvement in the network by InterVarsity students and staff would be inherently fraught and support for the network necessarily qualified. But that does not mean that there is no common ground between these two movements and that we ought not seek opportunities to collaborate for the common good.
In all of this we evangelicals should let our consciences be our guide and should be patient with one another in disagreement. I can understand why some may feel that the language of “Black Lives Matter” comes with too much baggage, too many complicating associations to be helpful for advancing conversations around race in the evangelical community. Fair enough. But I would ask that those who disagree with InterVarsity’s recent decisions to engage the Black Lives Matter movement try to be charitable toward this ministry which, quite frankly, deserves the evangelical world’s respect and the benefit of the doubt. Clarifying distinctions can be and have been made that should prevent sober and responsible parties to this conversation from painting everyone associated with #BlackLivesMatter with the same brush.