Strange Fruit (MLK Tribute)

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr

Last Sunday, my fellow pastor Eric Knox preached a powerful sermon "Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter." In honor of Martin Luther King Jr., he's generously shared some thoughts here from that sermon as a guest post. But first, watch this powerful video on racism we showed just prior to the sermon (set to the song "Strange Fruit"; performed live by Saeeda Wright and Sama Dams; video by my friend Nate Grubbs, nategrubbs.com).

by Pastor Eric Knox

I’m black, evangelical and yes, My Life Matters!

“Black Lives Matter!”
“No, All Lives Matter!”

Okay, Christians, go ahead. Remain divided. Live in the safety net of the echo chamber that reinforces your cultural and/or theological position. Dig your heels in the ground. Play it safe in the prison yard of the privilege or superiority that prevents you from living in the tension of these issues that the Gospel requires us to live in as the vitriolic war of words continues between the BLM and ALM camps.

But if we love Jesus (and I trust that we do), then we must realize that the disruptive nature of the Gospel always calls us out of the polarization of issues such as BLM vs. ALM and yet into them with all the nuance and vulnerability that the incarnational nature of Jesus calls for. So we can pit BLM against ALM, but in the end nobody wins and each remains further separated. Whether or not you embrace the movement is up to you, but I believe the bottom-up theology inherent in the Gospel states simply that yes, Black Lives REALLY DO Matter, and yet with a deep-seated conviction All Lives ON THIS PLANET Matter at the same time.

Luke 2

The story of Jesus being born into this world (Luke 2:8-10, 17-18) resolves the tension between these seemingly contradictory premises by affirming two things:

First, we see that as the Gospel is announced, it is a declaration that Jesus will be the cause of great joy for all people. This means the proclamation of Jesus goes out en masse to all equally because all people matter to God equally. It is an affirmation that All Lives Matter to God deeply, regardless of race, creed, religion or socio-economic status.

Second, the Gospel goes out to shepherds first as a way of representing what I believe to be a priority of the Gospel. In Jewish culture, shepherds were seen as social outcast and misfits. They were religiously untouchable because they were ceremonially unclean. They were in a lower economic class. There was no hope of advancement. They were harassed on the streets and had no rights in the courts. It is to this marginalized and maligned group of people that the Gospel is announced first.

This is significant because when Jesus launched His public ministry, much of His work centered first on those whom society said did not matter. Jesus touched lepers, the racially ostracized, women, tax collectors and insurrectionists. The religious institutions of Jesus’ day wrestled with Him because He made it His mission to say that the Gospel would first and foremost come through the lives of those who did not matter in society and then go out to the rest of the world.

Announcing the good news to shepherds first was God’s way of saying “Shepherds’ Lives Matter!” When Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman, it was His way of saying “Samaritan Lives Matter!” When He touched lepers, it was His way of saying “Lepers’ Lives Matter!” The Gospel is an affirmation that All Lives Matter precisely because it started with those whose lives didn’t matter to the establishment.

An Olympic Stand

At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Peter Norman, a white Australian sprinter, finished second in the 200-meter dash behind Tommie Smith and just in front of John Carlos, both of whom are African-American. Peter grew up in a devout Salvation Army home in Coburg, Australia. He possessed a strong commitment to God but struggled with their teachings, which forbid competing on the Sabbath. Many remember the Black Power salute John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave at the Olympic medal podium, raising their black gloves toward the sky in protest of the treatment of black lives in America. This powerful statement came at a dear price for both athletes. They were vilified and ostracized when they returned. While the image of their two fists raised in the air remains iconic and celebrated, little is ever said about the third figure at that podium–that of Peter Norman.

Norman did not wear a glove that day (although he suggested to them to share the one pair of gloves they brought), but he did stand in protest and solidarity with Carlos and Smith by wearing a badge supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). Martin Flanagan, an Australian sports journalist, recalls the conversation between the three medalists as they prepared to walk up to the podium: “They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God…What [they] were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, ‘I’ll stand with you.’” And Norman stood to his own peril. He too was shamed and ostracized in his homeland because of this protest.

All three of them had enough courage and insight to see that there is no dissonance between human rights and black rights. In fact, black rights can serve as shorthand and an entry point into the fight for the common good of all human rights because, by their very nature, they mutually serve each other.

A Modern Assault

One could make the case that the Black Lives Matter movement would be irrelevant if people truly believed that All Lives Mattered. Though the scripture purports that all lives are sacred to God, all lives in our culture are not sacred, nor are they equal.

For instance, Monique W. Morris (co-founder of the national Black Women’s Justice Institute), in her book Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century (2014) writes,

Although Black (including multiracial Black) people make up just 14 percent of the U.S. population, 37 percent of people who are homeless are Black…42% of Black children are educated in high-poverty schools (both elementary and secondary)…Most of the nation’s worst food deserts are disproportionately located in cities with a high percentage of Black Americans…The rate of drug use among Black people ages 12 and older is 10 percent, yet Black people account for 32 percent of those arrested for ‘drug abuse violations’ in the United States.

In America, there is a modern day assault on black life, as evidenced by both the above statistics and by the headlines of every national news outlet. The video you just witnessed soberly reminds us of the ubiquity of sin within the human heart. It is our very nature that leads to everything from the horrors of Jim Crow lynchings down to today’s senseless public executions of young black people on the streets by overzealous police officers, to the nine churchgoers whose lives were snuffed out at a Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina. The final credits of the video cite the most recent black victims of racially motivated hate crimes that result from the easily-acquired and often inherent hidden bias lodged within the psyche of America’s dominant culture.

So even though it is safe and neutral to say All Lives Matter, Jesus never played it safe, nor did He assume that this statement was true at face value even in the world He entered. The veritable stamp that authenticated Him as messiah was His announcement in Luke 4:18

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,

He had been anointed first to declare good news that the “Poor Mattered,” the “Incarcerated Mattered,” and the “Oppressed Mattered.” And though the Gospel is good news that All Lives Matter, Jesus introduced his ministry first and foremost to those that didn’t.

Want to hear more? Listen to Eric’s sermon here:

Author: "The Skeletons in God's Closet." Pastor: Imago Dei Community. Husband, Father, Foster Parent.

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