by Dr. Carl F. Ellis, Jr.
Last night, two young Black Christian leaders from our community came to visit us. They joined a steady stream of young people who’ve come to our home in the last few years seeking answers. One brother was primarily concerned about unjust policing in our city, the other with the high crime rate in his neighborhood.
Both of these issues have affected them and their friends deeply. My two young brothers expressed their frustration with measures that often lack practical application, be they protest or prayer. They were united by their larger concern over the lack of discipleship, the absence of applied biblical principles, and a prophetic void – all three, they sensed, were at the heart of their frustrations. They expressed a profound sentiment: “‘Black Lives Matter’ won’t matter to us until all Black lives matter.”
They also came with a question, “What do we do?”
Most folk acknowledge that there are at least two versions of “black lives matter.” For the Christian, making some sort of distinction makes it possible to participate in the movement for Black lives without compromising fidelity to Scripture. Not long ago, the two versions were distinct. They’ve since become so intertwined that it’s worth revisiting how they’re framed and perceived, and how they might be evolving.
On one hand, “black lives matter” (all lower case, “blm”) is a truth. This truth encompasses the healthy concern for matters that touch Black lives – criminal justice reform, racial justice, just policing, better community relations, crime reduction, urban homicide rates, discipleship, mass incarceration, abortion rates, poverty reduction, education, employment, ethnic reconciliation, accurate representation of our history, etc.
I affirm and engage this truth, and have encouraged and trained other Christians to do the same as a part of God’s plan of individual and cultural discipleship. I find these affirmations and concerns have no conflict with Christian conviction. I’ve built decades of personal and academic ministry on this truth – that Black lives do, indeed, matter to God, and therefore are of immeasurable significance and worth.
On the other hand, “Black Lives Matter” (capitalized, “BLM”) is an ideology with clearly stated goals and presuppositions. I would go so far to say that the original “BLM” ideology, which started as a rally cry and grew into an entity, has given rise to a cult with its own doctrines and demands for faith. It now extends beyond the original entity, blending with other belief systems in a syncretistic manner as it exports its own iconography, its own language, and its own heroes for veneration.
Honestly, I am more concerned about this syncretistic subculture than I am about the original “BLM.” It is an infection that is finding its way into Christian communities. Some things I have observed about this subculture among Christians:
1) It comes dangerously close at times to binding consciences by conflating holiness or true Christianity with grievance on the singular issue of police brutality as defined by “BLM.”
2) It flirts with binding consciences by subtly emphasizing public proclamation of commitment to “BLM” as evidence of commitment to Black people — ignoring the myriad of other issues that Christians might be addressing in their own personal and cultural spheres.
3) It borrows a language of exclusivity that suggests some Christians enjoy a deeper knowledge of reality than others (e.g., “woke” vs. “not woke,” commonly accepted by many in the movement for Black lives as an “existential state of being”). This transfers into the experiential, as when a Christian “gets woke,” one is now an acceptable part of a spiritual elite. This kind of language unwittingly draws unnecessary dividing lines in the Body that Christ died to unify.
I question the underpinnings of such language; it creates division based on a temporal standard for inclusion. Those within the Body who express concern or disagreement with this doctrinaire approach, or who lack public displays of support for the “BLM” movement, can have their authenticity questioned, be rejected, or ostracized. Surely, just policing is a legitimate pursuit for the Christian activist. However, it almost seems that for some, advocacy for just policing alone is becoming the Gospel, and awareness of the issue its Pentecost.
Others have already pointed out that “BLM” the entity holds presuppositions regarding human flourishing that are at odds with much of biblical truth. In our land of free thought and speech, it is their Constitutional right to hold these beliefs. Their de-centralized form of leadership, however, has opened the movement to chaos and uncontrolled rogues who aim to dehumanize others under their banner, even at the most peaceful of protests. Couple this deficiency in the leadership’s structure with their presuppositions of what constitutes human flourishing, and the Christian is presented with an obvious dilemma that cannot be glossed over with persuasive, yet simplistic pleas for “solidarity around a common cause.”
It has become increasingly apparent that the differences between these two – “blm” and “BLM” – do not co-exist as “tension to be embraced,” as it is touted by staunch “BLM” advocates in the Body of Christ. Rather, it seems for a number of Christians, the two are incompatible and for some, the two present an irreconcilable confusion. These concerned brothers and sisters should not be judged or marginalized for the courage of their convictions.
As for using the hashtag, it’s not essential to doing work that affirms Black lives, nor is its use essential in order to work alongside others who advocate for criminal justice reform and just policing. For example, a cursory glance through the Equal Justice Institute’s Twitter feed this year shows no consistent use of the phrase or the hashtag, even as they similarly pursue their fine work of criminal justice reform.
We need to walk in the wisdom of Jesus. He is truly the Messiah, yet he did not identify with that title when he was in Judea. Why? Because the term “Messiah” was grossly misunderstood by the Judeans.* The same applies to the confusion surrounding the “BLM” banner.
‘Where Is the Christian Voice?’
Not long ago, our colleague and brother Anthony Bradley argued thatwe don’t have to bend “BLM” the entityinto something it wasn’t originally designed to be; that is, into something distinctly Christian. I agree with him. We also don’t need to rely on it to accomplish cultural and social change. Christianity should never be subject to anyone else’s movement.
In the same article Bradley asked, ‘Where is the Christian voice in the conversation?’ Since his article was published, a number of young Christians have developed organizations willing to take on today’s issues without co-opting the language of “BLM.” Under their own unique titles, a number have organized and are developing belief statements outlining parameters of agreement. I believe this will help them greatly as they network to tackle today’s issues.
Belief statements are helpful in that they display care for the Body of Christ, for society, and for individuals who wish to collaborate by building parameters and defining expectations. Such statements combat confusion in two ways:
1) They show respect for the Constitutional right of the original “BLM” entity to have their own stated goals, beliefs, and intellectual property – even if it disagrees with “blm” as a truth.
2) They help define and articulate the Christian’s unique perspective on human flourishing.
In our collaborations, there’s no need for either defensive posturing or for blind affirmation of the value systems involved. In love for man and faithfulness to God, we can show respect to the platforms of those who may disagree with our foundations. It’s telling, however, if they do not respect our foundations or our commitment to them in return.
I’m also encouraged that these same grassroots organizations are springing into action around just policing and beyond, to all the issues that touch Black lives and into all spheres of human flourishing. They are arming themselves with a robust theology that can accomplish much, without compromise. Likewise, my two young friends left our home last night with a resolve to begin something of their own. It is up to God whether or not these movements will grow beyond their local significance. Either way, my wife and I are personally committed to nurturing these initiatives into something tangible and lasting.
I would be remiss if I did not mention those who have labored long in our communities, schools, courts, in politics and in our legislature, and in our general society for years, bringing the biblical Gospel to bear on the value of Black lives. Many who are new to today’s advocacy tend to ignore this presence, stating that “the church was not there” on these matters.
This is not accurate history.
I know many of you…some are younger, some are older. I’m a witness that your advocacy for Black lives – including just policing – began long ago, and continues a legacy started by those who came before us. You may not have been organized into movements, but you were there. I’m grateful for your faithfulness in the day to day, and I’m here to remind you your work does not go unseen.
Unless a distinction is clearly made between the two – “blm” and “BLM” – in the minds of the general public and the larger Christian community, or unless organizations issue public statements that distinguish between the two, I find myriad reasons why it’s unwise for Christians to identify with or protest under the “BLM” banner since other less compromising options are available.
For the Christian activist, a distinction also needs to be made between reform, revolution and revolt. Reform movements seek to improve the existing order. Revolution movements, if they are committed to truth, seek to abolish the existing order and replace it with a better one. Revolt movements just seek to tear down the existing order. History teaches us that without a better replacement as a goal, the result of a revoltis often a new order that is worse than the one that was demolished. The inconsistencies, lack of accountability caused by its decentralized leadership, and moral murkiness of today’s “BLM” leave it vulnerable to becoming merely a revolt movement.
I have further concerns that the gains and strides made by those who champion “blm” will be eclipsed by the unchecked and counterproductive activities of “BLM.” As a result, I’ve spent a good portion of this year advising those who ask me about the movement to use caution in affiliating with “BLM” ideology, or when marching under the “BLM” banner.
I’ve only touched on a few concerns here, but I’m open to dialogue further about the issue.
In closing, I don’t seek to bind anyone’s conscience; my hope – as it’s always been – is to see young men and women wisely build solid platforms on which they can generate tangible changes for our communities, without doing harm to conscience or conviction.
*The Samaritan ‘woman at the well’ – in spite of her theological confusion – had a more correct understanding of “Messiah.” Hence Jesus, in this context, did not hesitate to use this language familiar to her and identify himself as the “Messiah.”
Black Evangelical Perspectives NBEA Blogs Advocating Biblical and Cultural Integrity, through “Unity In Diversity Without Enforced Conformity.” The views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the NBEA.