black lives matter
Racism Theology

Black lives matter: why ‘colourblindness’ is theologically problematic

I don’t consider myself pedantic, but I want to take issue with overly simplistic readings of a very simple phrase. Many White Christians have taken a particularly keen interest in the statement “black lives matter”. More often than not this is to distinguish themselves from the Black Lives Matter organisations and its alleged Marxists beliefs. Regularly such wariness is accompanied by statements like “all lives matter” and “white lives matter”. Other accompanying statements include the refusal to “bow the knee to anyone but Christ”, a misguided notion which deserves its own post.

What’s interesting to me is that the same people so sensitive of the potentially negative associations of “Black Lives Matter” typically tend to be completely unaware of the far-right, nationalist and ultimately racist connotations of the “WhiteLivesMatter” hashtag that have repeatedly been demonstrated by the families of people unwittingly roped into these tropes and roundly condemned when they have attempted to usurp protests in support of “black lives matter”.

Three main readings of black lives matter

So, with this in mind, it is worth taking a closer look at what “black lives matter” means. Here are at least three central readings of the phrase “black lives matter”, which can generally be distinguished by the capitalisation.

  1. Black lives matter – first, and most importantly, black lives matter is an affirmation of the lives of black people. It is preposterous that this needs to be said in the 21st century, but it does. It doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter. Neither does it mean that other groups or pro-life issues are not important. Rather, as many of others have suggested, it is an opportunity to serve our flock – the human race.
  2. The “black lives matter” movement – Particularly following the murders of Armaud Arbery and George Floyd during the first half of this year, “black lives matter” became the common language of a global movement of protest by black people and – in many cases – in support of black people. Everyone is free to support or reject this movement, but supporters simply affirm the “black lives matter” message rather than any particular organisation.
  3. Black Lives Matter as an organisation – Of course, the Black Lives Matter organisation has done much to promote the “black lives matter” message, but supporting that message doesn’t indicate support of this specific organisation, the ethics of staff or the actions of those in attendance at protests it organised.

And of course, all three of these terms represent a range of people and a diversity of actions and beliefs. Why do I mention this? Because too often those that refuse to support the life- and value-affirming “black lives matter” message are also guilty of lazily characterising those in support of “black lives matter” as rioters. To do so ignorance of the wide range of people that support the core message is the definition of prejudice. Jarvis Williams addresses the biblical argument for affirming that black lives matter here.

For my part, I want to examine what is driving Christians, generally White Christians, to shy away from saying black lives matter – especially in light of the apparently low level of concern related to the downside of protesting “white lives matter” in competition with the former. Questions of personal racism aside, there are theological reasons for this too.

Colourblindness is theologically flawed

At a time when nations are being shaken along racial fault lines, it is understandable that Christians seek to emphasise unity. But that doesn’t mean believers are or should be “colour blind”. Not only are such assertions theologically problematic, but they could explain why more White Christians aren’t supporting their black brothers and sisters.

Sometimes, the rationale for ‘colour blindness’ is based on pretty reductionist interpretations of scriptures like “He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col 1:13). The argument is that, as a result of this scripture, there are only two races: those in the Kingdom of God and those not.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

is similarly deployed to mean that in Christ there simply are no races.

However, have you ever noticed that the same believers that preach colour-blindness based on scriptures such as Gal 3:28 also emphasize the differences between the sexes in the form of complementarianism using the same passage? There are ways to resolve this contradiction, but first here’s a little more on why such inconsistent readings exist

It goes back to the beginning. If we are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), a lot rests on our understanding of God as Trinity. If you adhere to the belief in any kind of hierarchy in the trinity, especially the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) teaching, which is either controversial or heresy depending on who you ask, in my view such belief is likely to result in hierarchical anthropology, ecclesiology, complementarianism and either racism or the need to dispatch with race in order to avoid race. Why? Because we are made in the image of God. And if God’s nature is based on a hierarchical power dynamic then so are we – inside and out!

And yet the book of Acts regularly identifies Christian believers in terms of racial and ethnic diversity (see Acts 22:19-30, for example). Likewise, in Rev 7:9 John explicitly testified that there is racial diversity in heaven:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

I don’t know how these contradictions can be resolved unless we start with a co-equal understanding of the Trinity. This way, we begin with ultimate picture of unity in diversity. This united, mutually exalting trinity is then what is reflected in our anthropology, ecclesiology, marital understanding and yes racial and ethnic ethics.

The Father doesn’t deny the unique identity of the Son and Spirit, rather they uphold each other. Likewise, there is no need to be colour blind. Rather in Christ we can have unity in diversity and Gal 3:28 can be more consistently read as referring to equality across the given categories rather than denial of some and exaltation of others. And besides, Matt 15:14 suggests that spiritual blindness disqualifies you from leadership in a given area!

Rather than be colourblind, we should aim for unity through diversity and not despite it. In addition, Dr Esau McCaulley’s suggestion that

“In Galatians the issue that leads to the famous “neither Jew nor Greek” passage is the question of whether one has to be circumcised and keep the works of the law to be justified. It is not a general denial of the importance of ethnicity.”

made me think that I should be paying more attention to ethnicity anyway and that this approach provides a way in which we can be reconciled in Christ as a human race and still retain value and diversity of ethnicity:

Back to the original question about affirming that black lives matter, I struggle to understand:

  • Why people can’t prioritise the importance of the core message – black lives really do matter, something that is especially important to highlight in light of 400 years of slavery at the hands of white people.
  • Why my white and/or Christian brothers and sisters can’t distinguish between saying “black lives matter” and the Black Lives Matter organisation.

Personally I would rather be mistaken in or for my action than allow the tacit message of my passivity to be re-appropriated or misunderstood. And even more than that, I would rather be like Jesus who was repeatedly unafraid of being maligned for consorting with those the self-righteous considered to be undesirable.

Photo: Cottonbro; Pexels.

Learn more about why people are protesting on this issue here:

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