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All Lives Matter, Yes, But…


“If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy – which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog – you will come to an awful realization… The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that the deserve to die.  Economically, they are negative assets.  Morally, they are indefensible.  The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whole main products of misery and used heroin needles.  Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good.  So does Oxycontin.“  — Kevin Williamson of the National Review, quoted by Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.


What galls me about this quote is the judgment and lack of empathy.  “They deserve to die?”  Really?  As a follower of Jesus Christ I want to shout, “These lives matter!”  I suspect behind Williamson’s dismissive attitude toward the white under-class is the myth of equal opportunity; underneath that is the Lockean notion that that we are born with a clean slate in life.  I’ve said this before, because it is so critical.  In fact, we inherit most of who we are, our decisions play a vital role but they do not form us.  Some are born with less opportunity than others simply because of when and where they are born, who their parents are, their genetics, and yes, their race and ethnicity too.  All of these things play into determining a person’s relative chance at becoming “successful” in life.  The idea that a person born in Appalachia has the same opportunity as did Donald Trump is simply ludicrous.  What the myth of equal opportunity does is permit us to judge people like under-class whites.  “They had their opportunity and they wasted it.”  They deserve to be poor and addicted to heroin… although it is an extreme step to also say they deserve to die.  From a Christian perspective, all lives matter therefore the goal is not equal opportunity but simply equality.  Finally, regarding Kevin Williamson, it is ironic that he complains to the selfishness of the white under-class while exhibiting selfishness himself.  If he wasn’t so selfish he might have some empathy for “these people.”  Furthermore, it isn’t just the white under-class that is selfish and addicted – the upper-class is also, as the crash of 2008 demonstrated – they are addicted to money, and they can hide their chemical addictions.  For me, Kevin Williamson displays something that is critically wrong with America.  That we do feel that some lives matter more than others.

To God, all lives matter, of course, but to make that the chant misses the point; it dilutes its meaning.  It is far more gut wrenchingly powerful to say the drug addict in eastern Kentucky – that his /her life matters.  It is with this perspective that I think we need to hear that Black Lives Matter.  I heard someone on NPR say not long ago that we shouldn’t say “All Lives Matter” unless we are able to first say, “Black Lives Matter.”  To say the latter invites empathy; “All Lives Matter,” while true doesn’t do that.  What concerns me is the speed at which we move to judgment rather than empathy – as Kevin Williamson’s words demonstrate.  I believe that our response as followers of Jesus must be compassion and empathy, even if it feels like it doesn’t make sense.  Empathy, for black men who are shot – trusting that their experience of maltreatment is real.

On the Daily Show Trevor Noah says with annoyance, ‘Why can’t we be for the black men who were shot and for the police?  Well, partly because we are judging rather than empathizing.  It is a part of what we have inherited as Americans; competition, winning and losing, getting ahead and being critical of others in order to do so.  The change that needs to be made is a spiritual one: from judgment to empathy as our primary response to any tragic event that happens.  I have great empathy for police officers.  Their job is difficult and dangerous.  And I have empathy for the spouses of officers – is it really that hard to simply imagine what it is like to consider than your spouse may face a violent event any day?  Likewise, is it that hard to imagine what it is like driving as a black man, knowing he could be stopped at anytime?  Taking sides is not the Way of Jesus.  As President Obama has said:  “We can do better.”



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