A popular response to the recent anti-racism slogan, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ is that ‘All Lives Matter.’ Well, of course they do. But that misses the point entirely and it causes further harm. ‘Black Lives Matter’ because all lives matter. And when people of different backgrounds to myself feel that they aren’t treated equitably, my response needs to be one of compassion, one that listens, one that is quick to empathise.
Why should I be particularly concerned here? Let me give you three reasons.
1. All deaths matter, but systemic problems remain.
Some have looked on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests with bemusement, as if to believe that George Floyd, the African-American whose death sparked the recent outcry, has somehow become a martyr. George Floyd’s passing was itself outrageous, but this death has become symbolic of the need to address systemic racial inequities. It does not, of course, invalidate or outrank the significance of any other death. All life is equally precious, but some deaths are representative.
Much has been made of the 432-plus Aboriginal deaths in custody since the 1991 referendum on this matter. Whilst there are fewer deaths in custody than for white people, black deaths in custody are statistically over-represented. If indigenous people make up around three per cent of the population but around twenty per cent of deaths in custody, then there is surely a problem. And if every incarceration, black or white, was found to be completely justified, then there is still a problem, one which we are not addressing adequately.
2. All Australians matter, but we aren’t all as immune from bias as we think we are.
The Guardian recently reported on a study of 11,000 Australians by an Australian National University researcher who found that three quarters of us have an implicit bias toward Indigenous people. Three quarters!
The conclusion was not that this number are racist, but that the potential for racism exists. None of us (hopefully) intend to be prejudicial, but we inadvertently perpetuate systemic problems.
The study explains why many Indigenous people feel discriminated against, notwithstanding the possibility that specific discriminatory actions are sometimes hard to quantify.
3. All opinions matter, but some people’s responses are just not helpful.
One of the great qualities of life in this nation is that we have freedom to express a view. Sadly, in our outrage-ready culture, some people experience such intense opposition to their views that we might sometimes think it is only certain views that are permissible. To different degrees, this phenomenon becomes problematic on a range of issues that might help us understand this particular one.
Just as I have experienced intolerance when in the minority, just as I experience prejudice as a kid due to my ethnicity, just as I hated going to school for a time due to being bullied, others around me today still feel the burden of bias and that ought to evoke empathy. But I don’t want to pretend to know what they experience. I don’t know. I may have some solutions and I may be a source of hope or healing, but I simply cannot presume to know another’s story or the reasons for what it is that they feel.
Armchair critics often remain safely detached from engagement with affected people. When we are in the trenches with those who are suffering, we generally speak differently. We treat people more kindly. We realise that, behind any hasty assessments we might be inclined to make are sometimes the harrowing accounts of generational hurts, past pain or present distress.
And when race adds a dimension of disadvantage to attempts to seek help, those problems are perpetuated. They compound. They intensify. And those on the receiving end need to be heard. Let us not trivialise or minimise what they feel with dismissive statements from our position of privilege. Let us not presume that our own stories, even our own misfortunes, could in any way invalidate those of others.
If, as a Christian, I believe that sin has corrupted humanity, then I also naturally believe everyone is in need of redemption. Jesus is the answer to all of humanity’s problems, including those which are societal. As we surrender to Him, we become better than we were, ‘better off’ but not better than others. In humility, Christians recognise that their own growth makes them better at loving people, better at showing compassion, better at serving beyond their immediate world. That means I surely have a special duty of care to engage in understanding and in making a genuine difference.
The missionary burden of the Christian carries a message of faith backed with transformative action. The two go hand in hand. Christians also carry the source of the very unconditional love that others need in both those dimensions of influence, in order to truly be free, and not because it is in any way earned or deserved, but because it was paid for on a Roman Cross two thousand years ago.