"Black Lives Matter": The Gospel as Rehabilitative Honoring

Over the summer the leaders of our church shared a statement with our congregation that "Black lives matter." And since then, and really no surprise given that we live in West Texas and the extreme polarization of our politics during an election year, our leaders have had to do a lot of explaining and teaching about what the church means when we say "Black lives matter."

In our statement, we were clear that when we, as a congregation, say "Black lives matter" we aren't endorsing any group, organization, political party or legislative policy. For us, the statement "Black lives matter" was a gospel issue.

How so?

A part of the problem, again no surprise, is that there is a perception that when we say "Black lives matter" we are elevating some lives over other lives. Such a perception tends to elicit the rejoinder that "All lives matter."

And, of course, they do. But the gospel education comes in clarifying that the phrase "Black lives matter" isn't about elevating some lives over other lives. The gospel impulse behind saying "Black lives matter" is, rather, rehabilitative, restoring a lost value, worth and dignity. Saying "Black lives matter" is just another illustration of what Jesus was doing when he addressed the Samaritan woman or broke bread with tax-collectors. Jesus wasn't saying Samaritans or tax-collectors matter more than others. Jesus was rehabilitating a lost humanity, restoring a diminished dignity.

A great example of this practice is found 1 Corinthians 12. There Paul is wrestling with honor/shame issues in the Corinthian church, how some people stood higher or lower on the metrics of value within Roman society. That problem should sound familiar to us given America's racial history. Consequently, unity in the body of Christ, declares Paul, is accomplished by rehabilitating the dignity of those who stand lower on social metrics of value and worth. The gospel demands that, wherever people are devalued, our practice should be rehabilitative honoring. As Paul shares:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor. 12. 21-26)

For those who stand secure according to metrics of social worth, Paul says such people "need no special treatment." You don't need to go out of your way to say their lives matter. The issue for Paul is "giving greater honor to the parts that lack it." And as should be clear, while this "greater honor" is distributed unevenly across the body, since honored members "need no special treatment," this asymmetrical honoring isn't unjust, unfair or divisive since the goal is restoration and rehabilitation.

The gospel mandate behind saying "Black lives matter" is that the body of Christ is "giving greater honor to the parts the lack it." This asymmetrical practice of giving "greater honor" isn't an elevation of some lives over others. Giving "greater honor" isn't a form of "reverse racism," establishing a new and different hierarchy of value and worth. Showing "greater honor" is restorative and rehabilitative, recovering value and worth where it had been missing. And according to Paul, this practice of rehabilitative honoring--"giving greater honor to the parts that lack it"--is how the church overcomes division and disunity.

Sometimes pictures help, so here's a diagram of the two ways of understanding "Black lives matter": 

To the left, situation A, is the false perception that saying "Black lives matter" is an elevation of Black lives over other lives, prompting the response "All lives matter." As described above, such a response is a mistake because what is actually happening is illustrated in situation B on the right. In saying "Black lives matter" we are engaged in rehabilitative honoring, giving "greater honor to those who lack it," restoring Black lives to that proper place where mutuality and concern for all pour forth.

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