You’ve heard it. Probably from a particularly active aunt on Facebook. The out and out opponents of racial justice tend to avoid the phrase in favor of more inflammatory statements that demean the movement as a whole, but lots of well-meaning white folks insult the cause of racial justice and simply don’t understand why “All Lives Matter” is so problematic.
As an evangelical pastor, though, I understand. In fact, it’s time for me and my compatriots to take responsibility for the “All Lives Matter” blind spot that’s so infected our ranks. A lot of it is a direct result of our carefully curated theology and the way we interpret scripture to avoid the pitfalls of “dangerous” heresy.
Evangelicals have always been leery of “works righteousness,” the notion that something we do could somehow earn our salvation – that salvation could be a transaction instead of a no-strongs-attached gift from God. In trying to avoid this false doctrine, we’ve made Christian faith about nothing more than what we think in our heads and the ideas we affirm as correct.
We cling to Romans 10:9 – “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Intellectual assent – a thoroughly modern, western concept – has become the end-all and be-all of evangelical faith.
We’ve done this without acknowledging that a Greek conception of “belief” inherently involves action. For the language and culture into which scripture was written, you did not “believe” anything unless you acted upon that belief. Intellectual assent is entirely foreign to scripture or the earliest Christian traditions.
We’ve traded one form of works righteousness for another. Instead of something we do providing salvation, we earn our salvation through the power of good intentions. It sounds sacreligious, but it’s how we operate.
When faced with the failures and shortcomings that clearly expose the gaping chasm between who we are and who we’re supposed to be, we cling to “Jesus Christ is Lord.” We’ve said the right things and believed the right things, which trumps whatever actions we’ve done or failed to do.
“All Lives Matter” is our disembodied affirmation of truth, regardless of the physical reality around us. It is more important to evangelicals than recognizing the reality that black lives clearly don’t mean as much as white ones, because our theology has taught us that intentions trump actions.
Yes, yes, “faith without works is dead,” but we treat those actions more like a bonus – extra credit on the quiz of life. Optional.
How can we get away with that? How could so many be convinced that merely stating an ideal (like “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “All Lives Matter”) could be more appropriate than addressing the very real ways those ideals are not born out in the world around us?
Simple, we’ve also been taught that Jesus came to save us.
While it’s true that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ does provide salvation for you and for me, our salvation was not the point of God becoming human, walking among us, submitting to death, and being raised to new life.
Your individual salvation is not worth all that.
Many evangelicals have been told that even if they were only one who would ever believe, Jesus still would’ve died for them.
I’ll agree that if you were the only thing that existed in the universe, floating around in the vacuum of nothingness, that God would love you enough to die for you alone.
That’s not reality, though. The universe exists, with all its multitudinous and complex creation. You and I don’t exist in a vacuum. We exist as part of a gigantic, infinite reality, which God loves so thoroughly and completely, down to the last quark and atom, that God’s sole purpose is to love that reality into its created purpose.
Your salvation and my salvation are made possible in Jesus Christ, but only as means to an end. We are saved so we may participate in the salvation of everything. We are saved to be part of a world that operates as God intends it to operate.
When we say “Jesus Christ is Lord,” we’re merely asserting a future reality and committing to work so that future reality becomes a present reality.
Jesus tells a story about a rich man who leaves various servants in charge of various sums of money. Two of them go out and use the money to make more; one servant hides the money, saving what he has so nothing will be lost when the rich man returns.
For too long, evangelical theology has condemned us to be that risk-averse servant. We’ve taken the good news of the gospel and we sat on it, afraid to lose it by engaging the messiness of the world and seeking to participate in its transformation into God’s Kingdom. We were welcomed into the front door of heaven and we’ve camped out there, afraid to explore the house, for fear of breaking a lamp or tracking mud on the carpet.
All Lives Matter is a future reality; it is entirely consistent with God’s intentions for the world and Christian faith is confident it will come to be made evident to everyone at some point.
We will never realize that future reality, though, unless we are obedient to the God of our salvation and invest the gospel gift we’ve been given in real, tangible action to combat the lived reality that, today, in our world, our country, our neighborhood, our church, some lives – black and brown lives – do not yet matter as much as other lives, as much as they deserve to matter, as much as they will matter once the investment of this gospel comes to fruition in the promised and certain future.
But for now, saying “All Lives Matter” is like hiding the gift of God away, afraid to invest it for fear of loss. It is a rejection of our scriptural mandate to believe (not just intellectually assent) that Jesus Christ is Lord. That belief must be manifest in action. Our salvation is not our own; it is an investment, on behalf of God, for the redemption of the whole world.
It is time to escape the evangelical hermeneutics that have for so long held us back from this reality!