Let’s get something established right away:
All human life has value, and no innocent person deserves to die.
But though this statement is absolutely truthful, there are times when it is used as a distraction, a deflection, and a detraction from a larger issue.
I used to be the type of person who said, “ALL lives matter!” in response to those who were telling the world, “Black lives matter.”
I thought I was being just. I thought I was stating the obvious. I thought I was being more inclusive, more compassionate, and more tolerant.
All lives matter. Of course. Everyone knows that.
Five years ago, I cringed a little bit when I first heard of #blacklivesmatter. As a young white woman, I felt a deep-rooted, hesitant stirring of indignation.
Not because I thought that Black lives didn’t matter.
Not because I thought Black people were somehow less worthy.
Instead, it was because I was offended that anyone would think I thought otherwise.
The very fact that the statement existed made me uncomfortable. In the twenty-first century, it should be unnecessary. In the twenty-first century, no one should be implying that anyone — least of all conservative, White, unassuming, innocent little old me — was even remotely culpable of seeing Black lives as “less than.”
I placed my personal indignation above other people’s suffering, and told myself I was being the bigger person. “ALL LIVES MATTER,” I typed on Facebook, and patted myself on the metaphorical back.
Complaining about injustice?
Protesting brutal killings and unfair sentences and unchecked discrimination?
Never fear. I am here, the White person helpfully reminding you that all lives matter.
Deflecting the argument.
Distracting from the injustice.
Detracting from the problem at hand.
It was a very slow process that overturned this way of thinking. And, despite those who prefer to claim that “no one was ever convinced by an argument on the internet!” it was, in fact, social media that gradually changed my mind.
It wasn’t ugly comment wars that convinced me, but people who shared articles. People who tweeted hard truths. People who posted pictures and videos from which I couldn’t, in good conscience, look away.
Eventually, it began to dawn on me. Saying that Black lives mattered didn’t mean White lives didn’t matter, or that Brown lives didn’t matter, or that any other life didn’t matter. It was simply addressing one particular issue, one huge injustice, one horrific crime against humanity.
It was so simple and so profound.
The problem wasn’t the fact that #blacklivesmatter implied that I wasn’t as enlightened as I thought I was. The problem was that I took it as a personal attack on myself, when I should have turned around and looked at the problem that prompted the hashtag.
As a White person who wasn’t suffering, I made the issue about me. I focused on my own indignation and my own feelings of being offended, and turned a blind eye to the root cause.
It was as if someone had said, “Child abuse is a terrible crime, and we need to speak out against it,” and I swooped in and said, “All crimes are bad! I have NEVER abused a child and I’m offended that you would imply I didn’t know child abuse was wrong.”
Yeah, sure, those things are true.
But are they helpful? Or are they simply self-congratulatory, and harming and hampering the good work of the truth that child abuse must be stopped?
I still wholeheartedly believe that all lives matter. That all humanity has value, because we are all made in the image of God. That no person deserves to be brutally killed at the hands of a cruel and callous man who is beyond drunk on power. That age and race and gender and religion and ethnicity should never, ever be a death sentence.
But I also am learning when this is appropriate to say. The truth is always there. The truth is not going to go away because I chose to stand in solidarity with people who are upholding one particular element right now that is under attack.
The problem isn’t the statement. The problem is the context.
If someone is grieving over a crime against humanity, holding up the unwarranted death of a man and begging for justice, asking the world to remember that BLACK LIVES MATTER, my response should be an unequivocal YES THEY DO.
It’s not my place to deflect.
It’s not my place to distract.
It’s not my place to argue and equivocate and detract from the issue at hand.
It’s my responsibility to put aside my own feelings. To not make it about me. To not get defensive and waste my words and my time and my energy on explaining why I, personally, am definitely not culpable, and why my opinions are more important.
To listen to the words of others and to feel empathy and compassion and the desire to do right.
To apologize for my previous self-centeredness and narcissm. To be sorry and ashamed that I am so quick to make it about me.
It’s my responsibility to do better going forward.
It’s my responsibility to uphold justice. To love mercy. To walk humbly before God and man.
It’s your responsibility, too.