The Apostle Paul, speaking to the early church in Galatia, expresses this concept well when he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV).
Paul writes this letter in response to his critics’ attacks about the way he is teaching what it means to be Christian in this fledgling movement. There is absolutely no question, however, that the free people of his time enjoyed privileges that slaves did not or that men enjoyed privileges that women did not.
And yet how often we Christians forget that the foundation of our faith is that Jesus died fighting for the poor and the disenfranchised to be heard and cared for and that he commanded us to do the same. We keep repeating history because we fail to grasp the notion that while all lives matter, our charge is to see that those who are ignored and swept aside get the attention that free, white, wealthy males have enjoyed since the beginning of civilization.
Just 52 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died preaching the same message. Five years before his death he was jailed for protesting in Birmingham, and like Paul, he wrote a letter to his critics.
From that jail, like Jesus and Paul before him, Dr. King responds to the clergymen (yes, pastors and, yes, all men!) to address their claim that he had no right to be in Birmingham. In part, he writes:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as…the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In a new century, when Blacks are still denied privilege and even justice by a deeply ingrained white power structure, Christians are still commanded by the Christ we follow to seek privilege and justice for the powerless.
Even poor white Christians must follow this command. Let us not forget the story Christ once told of a poor widow:
He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12: 41-44, NRSV).
He watches the rich people give, as they are certainly expected to do, but he doesn’t praise them for their largess. Instead, Jesus points to the poor woman as an example of how we should all behave. As a woman and a widow, even in the dominant culture, this widow certainly had little privilege, yet she feels a responsibility to give.
Black lives matter.
Not because they matter more than poor whites who also struggle for survival in the wealthiest country in the world. They matter because race ensures that they must strive harder to get privilege and justice.
As a white child of poverty who once lived in a house with an outdoor toilet and no hot water, I was still privileged in ways that Blacks in my first hometown were not. Yes, I worked hard in school to escape poverty. But now that I am securely ensconced in the upper middle class, I do not have to worry about how I’ll be treated by police if I’m pulled over for speeding or for having an expired registration. I have several black male friends, also firmly upper middle class, who cannot say the same.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of how his friend Prince Jones was killed by police yards from his fiancee’s home by a policeman who didn’t even work in the jurisdiction where Jones was killed. In the book and the recent film Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for the Equal Justice Initiative, gives a harrowing account of being stopped by police, who hold a gun to his head solely for the purpose of intimidating him for his work on the case of an innocent man on death row.
These are not unusual stories. This is why Black Lives Matter.
As long as our skin is white, even if that is the only privilege we have because we are part of the lower class, we still have a responsibility to those who are even less privileged. Until those who are poor and white understand this, those in power will continue to divide and conquer to maintain the existing power structure, which benefits them little more than their brothers and sisters of another race.
In her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, a historian on the faculty of Louisiana State University, recounts the consistent ways that those in power in America have used race and class to stay in power. She concludes the book in this way:
It was just as easy to ignore inequality by claiming that certain breeds could never be improved. As W.E.B. Du Bois explained in 1909, southern politicians were lost in the vacuity of illogic. They had fallen to arguing that any form of social intervention was pointless, because man could not repel nature’s force; some races and classes were invariably stuck with their inferior mental and physical endowments…[America’s poor] are drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals. Waste people remain the ‘mudsills’ who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line.
Black Lives Matter. And that all lives matter cannot be an excuse for inaction.
White Christians, in particular, whether rich or poor, have a responsibility to follow the example of Christ. We are still commanded not to hate, and we need to remind ourselves daily that the greatest commandment is love. And like the poor widow, we are still commanded to give what we can and to root out poverty and injustice when we are witness to it.
Like Jesus and Paul and Martin before us, we must live lives worthy of the calling we have accepted.