Holiness is justice
This past June, following the shooting at an Orlando nightclub, I put a sign out in front of our church that said, “A Blessed Ramadan to our Muslim friends.” It was an effort to show support for our siblings in the Abrahamic tradition because some national notables were calling for Muslims to be kept from entering the country. The response to the sign was surprisingly positive. A young Muslim man stopped and took a picture of it in front of our church and posted it on his Facebook page where he received many positive comments. It was also posted on our church’s Facebook page where it received many positive comments from church members and non-members alike. I took the signs down after Ramadan.
The week after the police shootings of a black man in Louisiana and another in Minnesota, I put up another sign, “Black Lives are at Risk: Black Lives Matter.” I included the first phrase because I wanted to provide a context for what is seen by many as only a political statement — as if there is no reason to think that black lives matter. I received several phone messages that expressed anger accusing me of being un-Christian because the sign didn’t say “All Lives Matter.” I called back the one person who left his phone number and we had a respectful conversation airing our differences. I noted that after the shooting of police in Dallas, we learned once more that “blue lives” are also at risk and Blue Lives Matter. He agreed. After that conversation I retrieved our other street sign from the farmer’s market and set it out next to the first. It said “Blue Lives are at Risk: Blue Lives Matter,” thinking that would quell the phone calls. But four more objections came even after that, calls and emails, from members and non-members alike, with the same message: to single out one group is prejudice against other groups. That is odd to me because when I raise money walking for diabetes research no one says I’m prejudiced against cancer research.
It so happened that two Sundays later I was preaching on the Lord’s Prayer, from Luke 11. Among the commentators I consulted was Dominic Crossan, who, as he considered the phrase, “hallowed be your name,” sent me back to Leviticus 19, a critical text in what some call “The Holiness Code.” Verse 1 says, “Be holy as God is holy.” (“Hallow” and “Holy” are from the same Hebrew root.) I knew Leviticus 19 was influential in the gospel of Luke, because 6:36 says, “Be merciful as God is merciful.” Or, in my preferred translation, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Here, with a twist, Luke is retrieving Leviticus 19:1, “Be holy as God is holy.” It seems as if Luke has reframed holiness as mercy/compassion. That is contrary to the idea of personal purity, which is what I was taught “holiness” meant. So I went back to Leviticus 19 to see why Luke made the twist.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard, you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord, your God.” (vv. 9-10)
“You shall not defraud your neighbour, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, you shall hallow your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgement, you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great. With justice you shall judge your neighbour.” (vv. 13-15)
“When an alien resides in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (vv. 33-34)
Holiness has to do with caring for the people at risk in your society. Holiness is justice. Justice is holiness. You don’t reap your entire harvest because the widow, the orphan, and the poor need a harvest as well, so you leave some for them. You live honestly and treat rich and poor alike, yes, all lives matter, yet there are groups that are singled out — and those are the people at risk.
Widows’ lives matter, orphans’ lives matter, and deaf lives matter. Leviticus takes care to point out specifically those who are at risk. Holiness acknowledges that “All Lives Matter” and waves a banner that says “Oppressed Lives Matter” and “Marginalized Lives Matter,” too. When Jesus quotes Isaiah in his inaugural address in Luke 4, he tells us that the lives of the blind, the oppressed, the prisoners each matter.
There are places in the Bible where God’s love for all is expressed. “God so loved the world...” says the gospel of John. “God is love...” says 1st John. And those, among others, are profound theological statements. They are statements about God and consequently are aspirational statements for human beings. Leviticus 19, the prophets and Jesus’s mission statement are directional statements, a road map to get to “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
It says eight times in Leviticus 19, “I am the Lord your God,” and the last time it says it, the kicker comes with it, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” God is holy not because God is separate from human beings, but because God feels the suffering of the downtrodden whose plight it is difficult to take in. The Hebrews were God’s chosen not because they were special, but because they were once slaves — and their lives mattered.
Therefore, it is far from being un-Christian to say black lives matter. It is biblical to say so. The phrase simply recognizes that in our culture the lives of people of color are more at risk than the lives of white people. Put bluntly, since our culture has been created and shaped largely by whites, black lives don’t matter as much to whites. Allow me to illustrate from an article by Arun Gupta, who grew up in the ghettos of Baltimore, and is a regular contributor to The Progressive, In These Times and The Guardian.
“We as a nation tolerate:
> an African-American unemployment rate more than twice that for whites, (Bureau of Labor Statistics, table A-2, July 2015-July 2016)
> black childhood poverty rate three times that for whites, (The Economic Policy Institute’s The State of Working America, 12th Edition)
> black median household income less than 60 percent of whites’ (Sentier Research: Household Income on the Fifth Anniversary of the Economic Recovery: June 2009 to June 2014)
> a black death rate 20 percent greater than whites’, (Appendix 1, National Vital Statistics System, table 19)
> and 1.5 million “missing black men” (missing from their communities due to early death or incarceration) (1.5 Million Missing Black Men By Justin Wolfers, David Leonhardt and Kevin Quealy; New York Times)
In the face of these numbers how can we say that all lives matter? The systemic racism that hampers equity is perhaps difficult for whites to see because we think white life is normal for everyone. This is the same reason it is next to impossible for young urban black men and women to achieve the American dream. There are hidden barriers and assumptions built into our way of life.
One phone caller upset about the Black Lives Matter sign said that the problem is the irresponsible black kids who “stand around on street corners with their pants to their knees smokin’ dope and not getting a job.” That characterization does
not take into account the larger context in which those young men live. Of course, the way to become a whole human being is to take personal responsibility. Yet, we need to at least acknowledge the paucity of resources in which many people live and the systemic realities stacked against them. We have reaped to the edges of the field and there is no place for them to take responsibility for their own lives.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his book, “The Beautiful Struggle,” of a gang war in Baltimore that started because some kid from one gang stole the bike of a kid in another gang. Several lives were lost before it was resolved. Coates took the thoughts out of my head when he asked why so many lives were at risk over a bicycle. Just go get another one. But the point isn’t the bike, he says, it is respect. When you know you are beneath the bottom of the cultural ladder, when you know your life is on no one’s radar screen, a stolen bike destroys the only shred of self worth you had attained. Retaliation is the only way to get it back. If black lives really mattered there would be multiple avenues to self respect for these young men of color. So let us approach this biblically, in order to make the aspiration “All Lives Matter” a reality, let us proclaim with Leviticus the reality of those who are specifically at risk.