For a Portuguese version of this article, see Mas e eu? Black Lives Matter e o Cristianismo.
Matheus Reis is a Brazilian-American PhD student at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity, University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on Brazilian Protestantism in the United States.
How many times have we asked the question, but what about me? In a recent conversation with my nephew about the Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd, we talked about how difficult this phrase had become to some people, and how their first reaction to hearing someone say Black lives matter was, what about me? Does my life not matter? Don’t all lives matter? I was reminded of a well-known Bible story about the prodigal son, who squandered his father’s inheritance on a life of mistakes, but who also came to his senses, returned home, and received his father’s forgiveness. This story tells us primarily about God’s amazing grace that is able to look past our mistakes, forgive us of our sins, and to restore our lives no matter what we have done. However, inside this story, we find another character whose outlook on life is very similar to many of us, the older brother, and whom we can learn from.
The story tells us that when the older brother arrived home and saw that his father had been celebrating the return of his once lost brother, he got angry. He told his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30, NIV). In other words, the older brother told his father, but what about me? Don’t I matter to you? Do you not see me? Although the analogy does not apply entirely to the issue at hand since the prodigal son’s own actions led him to his struggles, and the oppression of the Black community has come at the hands of racism, something can still be learned about the interaction between the older brother and his father. I believe the father’s response is very relevant to us today: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31, NIV). So, my question is, are we really all sons and daughters of God, all of us made in the image of God regardless of our skin color or heritage? If so, then why do we still ask, but what about me?
As Christians, we are charged with the responsibility of following Christ’s example, who laid down his life for the sake of others. We are called to live selfless lives, on behalf of others, and to lift others up, as well as their best interests. As Paul’s words remind us:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Philippians 2:1–4, NIV
We are called to value others above ourselves, not looking to our own interests but to the interests of others. I am not going to say that this is an easy call, but I will say that it is the Christian call, the biblical call. But what about me? Does that mean that I no longer matter because I have to say that others matter more? I remember the powerful words that a pastor once told me, “It is not a call to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less.”
As one reads the beatitudes, he or she may be confused and ask, do I have to be poor and oppressed to be blessed by God? No, we are not called into oppression so that we may be blessed by God, but we are called to realize that when one of us is oppressed, we all are! Paul also teaches us that we are all members of one body, and that the parts of the body that we think are the weakest, are actually the ones we could not live without. So, yes, I will say Black lives matter because Black lives are a part of the body of Christ, and when one part of the body hurts, the whole body feels it, and expresses it.
Often times, we may find it difficult to empathize with situations that we cannot see ourselves in. When we hear of shootings in a movie theater, school, or the Las Vegas strip, we can easily see ourselves in the faces of the victims, with the rage and fear that the tragedy could have happened to one of us. My question is, when you look at George Floyd, who do you see? To many in the Black community, they see their father, brother, son, or even themselves, as a limp body laid out on the street. Who do you see? Do you see your brother? Your neighbor? When speaking about the kingdom of God, Jesus said that God will bless those who have visited him in jail, but how does one visit Jesus in jail, you may ask? Jesus answers, “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40, NIV). George Floyd was a human being, made in the very image of God, even if one was to assume that he was a criminal. When you look at him, can you see Jesus? Instead of asking what about me, we should be asking: What about my neighbor? What about Jesus? And what about us, his body?
We are self-centered, egotistical people by nature, attributes that are only heightened by the individualistic appeal of our societies, and in many ways, of our individualistic understanding of the gospel. We have often lost the true meaning of community, an idea deeply entrenched throughout the pages of Scripture. We are the ones who ask Jesus, who is my neighbor? As if Jesus was supposed to give us a list of whom we should love based on our shared experiences or culture. Jesus, however, teaches us “how” to be a neighbor, which is to love others, especially those who may look different than us, and who come from a different background than us. The love that Jesus preaches is a scandalous love that goes beyond human assertions and divisions, and we are called to go and do likewise. People should know us by our love, but unfortunately some of us are more known by our hatred. So, when our Black brothers and sisters say, Black lives matter, can we join them in saying it too, or do we still want to continue thinking primarily of ourselves and to say, but what about me? I am not asking you to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less.