I used to work as an investment advisor. I’d travel to meet clients wherever was convenient for them to discuss their investments and retirement plans. Once time, an older couple wanted to meet in a room at their church, in which they were heavily involved. One of the first questions they asked me was, “Do you believe in grace?” I said that I absolutely did. They said that was wonderful, that they had attended a church for years and never heard about grace, but since they started attending their present church and learned about grace, their lives had been transformed. They also offered to give me a book about grace. I gladly accepted it – a book about grace? Sounded good.
Later, when I started looking through the book, I realized that what they meant by “grace” was “God loves you and will give you whatever you want.” Health and prosperity gospel. Not at all what I meant by “grace.” So in effect, I had enthusiastically agreed to a false doctrine, simply because I didn’t understand what they meant by the term “grace.”
The meaning of words and phrases are vital, especially if we are going to have a conversation about serious matters. Sometimes disagreements can be boiled down to the fact that the same term is used with different meanings by different people.
I recently attended (OK, more “observed” than “attended”) a Black Lives Matter demonstration. I listened to the slogans but didn’t feel comfortable joining in the chants. On further reflection, here’s why: the slogans have multiple meanings. And while I may agree with one level of meaning, I certainly disagree with other levels of meaning. And chanting slogans doesn’t allow for the sort of nuanced, thoughtful conversation needed to sort it out.
In case I’ve completely lost you, here are some examples of what I mean.
“Black Lives Matter”
- Reality check: Persons of color have the same value as everyone else, but they aren’t treated the same. So this is a reminder not to undervalue blacks or other persons of color. This is why the response “All Lives Matter” is offensive – it denies the reality that blacks and other minorities face discrimination. (Imagine a protest in Nazi Germany, declaring “Jewish Lives Matter” and being met with “All Lives Matter.” It misses the point – it was the Jews, not “all,” who were being slaughtered.)
- Biblical perspective: the basic idea is absolutely biblical. All people are equal. Christ died for all, regardless of race or background. We are called to treat everyone equally. And when there is discrimination, we are morally required to oppose it.
- Toxic idea: This slogan has become the name of a movement that covers a huge variety of causes, including black supremacy, homosexual activism, opposition to traditional family values, and even outright anarchy. Obviously many of these are blatantly unbiblical and even overtly destructive.
“White silence is white violence”
- Reality check: This one is hard to swallow. On the surface it sounds racist: why does it single out whites? It helps to understand that “white” here doesn’t literally mean “Caucasian.” It’s a reference to those who do not face racism and who could speak out against it if they chose to. And so on further reflection, the basic idea is right. We are horrified by those who stand by and watch someone being murdered, whether it’s police officers or passersby. Those who are aware of oppression and in a position to help have a moral obligation to try to help. Those who willingly ignore oppression share in the guilt of the oppressor. (Again, think of Corrie Ten Boom working to rescue Jews from the Nazis. We are outraged by how often she would ask others to help, only to be told, “I don’t want to get involved.” Those who ignored the problem were, in fact, a big part of the problem.)
- Biblical perspective: Actually, the basic idea is very biblical. In Isaiah 1:17, God commands, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression.” In Obadiah 1:11, God condemns Edom for not intervening when Judah was attacked: “On the day you stood aloof… you were like one of [the attackers].”
- Toxic idea 1: The slogan assumes that the only reason someone would be unaware of the problem is that they willingly choose to ignore the problem. And that’s not a safe assumption. Though, to be fair, it’s the same dynamic on both sides of the issue: “Since I haven’t personally seen or dealt with obvious racism, it must not exist” vs. “Since I have personally seen or faced obvious racism, everyone must be aware of it.” The assumption that personal experience = universal experience is a very common problem.
- Toxic idea 2: While “white” may not be intended to mean “Caucasian,” some do mean exactly that with this slogan. It is used to deepen racism, making all whites the enemy of blacks. At worst, it can mean that there are no innocent bystanders, that every white person in America is guilty of racism and so is a fair target for violent reprisals.
“No justice, no peace”
- Reality check: The basic concept behind this slogan is “We will not be quiet as long as there is injustice.” And this is fine, provided the “peace” referred to is the absence of protest.
- Biblical perspective: to raise your voice in defense of the oppressed is certainly biblical. Proverbs 31:9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” But that’s not really what this slogan means – it’s the oppressed themselves who are promising that there will be “no peace” until there is justice. Taking matters into our own hands in order to bring “justice” is not an approach that the Bible condones.
- Toxic idea: this slogan way too easily becomes a justification for violence begetting more violence, an excuse for violence, rioting, looting, etc. “We will continue to commit violence in order to bring attention to injustice.” The rioters feel justified because they are striving for “justice,” but in reality they are bringing more injustice and misery.
- Reality check: in general, white Americans have better access to schooling (including college), enjoy more stable home lives, face less discrimination, have an easier time building their careers, etc. But the reality is that “white privilege” should be “human privilege” – that is, the circumstances that make life easier for white Americans should be equally available to all Americans. So perhaps the real problem is not “white privilege” but the lack of “black privilege.”
- Biblical perspective: while Scripture doesn’t directly deal with white privilege, it certainly recognizes that some people have an easier time in life than others. So the basic idea behind white privilege is biblical. But in Scripture, those in a position of advantage or power (those who have “privilege”) are responsible to help those who are not.
- Toxic idea: when “white privilege” is seen as the problem, white Americans are blamed for having an easier time than black Americans or other persons of color. Jealousy-fueled contempt and hatred kicks in. And so the idea of “white privilege” is used to exacerbate racism.
Many of these slogans, then, do reflect a biblical perspective – at least on some level. But at the same time, they are also used to push an agenda that is destructive and blatantly wrong. I have no doubt that many of the BLM protesters chant these slogans with in order to point out genuine problems discussed under the “reality checks” above, unaware that many people hear them as endorsing the “toxic ideas.”
It’s easy and very tempting to just endorse or dismiss the whole movement, but before you do, remember Proverbs 18:13, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” So next time you hear these and other slogans, stop, listen and think. Are you hearing what’s actually intended? Do the actions of the protesters support the genuine problems or the “toxic idea”?