By Ed Beddingfield
Pastor at Memorial Baptist Church, Buies Creek, NC
One problem with slogans is that they rarely tell the whole story.
Consider the title Pilate attached to the cross when Jesus was crucified: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, so that all who saw it could read it. It seems straightforward enough . . . but not so fast.
The chief priests read it literally. Written as it was, they figured the rabble just might fall for it, slapping themselves on the forehead and saying, “Doh . . . that means he really was the King of the Jews, after all! Maybe it was a mistake to have him crucified.” The priests asked Pilate to change the sign to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” People can’t be trusted to make up their own minds. You have to spell it out for them.
Pilate wasn’t sure what to think. Twice he asked Jesus if he was a king, but Jesus’ answers seemed nonsensical, at least to him. Pilate was even prepared to let Jesus go, but in the end he caved. Still, he wouldn’t change the sign: “What I have written, I have written.” You can almost see him smirking at these hick religious fanatics – the priests, the crowd, even Jesus, splitting hairs and getting all worked up, with a human life at stake. Picky, picky.
Jesus understood it in a way nobody else did: “My kingdom is not of this world.” In John’s Gospel it requires ten lines of text for him to try to explain to Pilate what he meant. You sure can’t fit that on a T-shirt! Even then, Pilate didn’t get it. (Read the entire account in John 18:33 – 19:22.)
That’s three different interpretations of the same eight-word slogan (at least in English). No wonder so many slogans inflame when they were originally intended to explain.
Two slogans have come out of the protest movement following George Floyd’s death, both of which have been around for years, but these days are catapulted to center stage. During the interrogation Jesus told Pilate that he came “to bear witness to the truth.” My interest here is in speaking a truth that, like Jesus’ ten-line explanation, doesn’t conveniently fit on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker.
The first slogan is “Black Lives Matter.” Dr. Gerald Jaynes, professor of Economics and African-American Studies at Yale, has an essay in the current Yale Alumni Magazine (“Race relations at this perilous moment,” Vol. LXXXIII, No. 6, July/August 2020, pp. 41-45, adapted from an address he gave to the North American Studies Program at the University of Bonn, Germany, 10 years ago). Dr. Jaynes writes that the “implicit meaning” of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan involves a fourth word that’s left off: “too.” What the slogan really means, he says, is “Black lives matter, too.”
The slogan does not mean that only Black lives matter, or that Black lives matter more than any others. It does not mean that blue lives (the police) don’t matter, or that white lives don’t matter, or that all lives don’t matter equally. In fact, it means precisely the opposite: All lives do matter, but “all lives” includes Black lives. Black lives matter, too. And if you can’t say that, you can’t say that all lives matter.
We wouldn’t have to say Black lives matter too if it had been enslaved white people who were brought to America 400 years ago, instead of Africans. We wouldn’t have to say Black lives matter too if enslaved Black people had not been sold, bred, raped, whipped and murdered, and if they had not been counted in the original Constitution as only 3/5 of a person. We wouldn’t have to say Black lives matter too if they had not been systematically prevented from voting, even after the Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, guaranteed Black male suffrage. We wouldn’t have to say Black lives matter too if they had not been lynched right up into the ‘60s. And we wouldn’t have to say Black lives matter too if they had not been arrested, convicted, incarcerated, executed, or shot dead on the street at a higher rate than white people who commit the same crimes, up to and including George Floyd.
I beg you, when you hear the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” please, don’t stop at saying, “All Lives Matter.” We know that. What we need to remember is, Black lives matter, too.
The second slogan is “Defund the Police.” We’ve seen the political ad: When the police are defunded, callers to 911 will get an answering machine telling them it’s a five-day wait if they are calling to report a crime. I know – I thought exactly the same thing when I first heard the slogan. But that’s not what “Defund the Police” means.
Dr. Jaynes writes in his essay that “Defund the Police” is not “a utopian demand to ‘Abolish the Police.’” The slogan was known and discussed “long before the killing of George Floyd,” according to Christian Century (“Police budgets used to be untouchable,” Vol. 137, No. 15, July 15, 2020, pp. 15-16). The idea is not to do away with cops, but to shift some funding – not all, but some – away from heavy-handed, military-style policing with armored vehicles, flash grenades and combat boots. Instead there is a renewed focus on social strategies, many of which have suffered declining funding over at least four decades, that actually address some of the root causes of crime: poverty, homelessness, segregated housing, broken families, education, unemployment, substance abuse, and mental illness. That’s another list you can’t fit on a T-shirt.
The Ninth Commandment is, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). It has to do with not testifying about others, or to others, in ways that deliberately cause harm or perpetuate misunderstandings. As your pastor I’m asking you: Don’t blame the slogan because the concept is too long, or too complicated or nuanced, to squeeze onto a bumper sticker.
Jesus told Pilate, “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” Christians are Christ-followers.
-Submitted from Ed Beddingfield’s “Daily Reflections” for members and friends of Memorial Baptist Church on July 20, 2020.