Why it is a lie to say “All Lives Matter”
Why I believe that this seemingly noble statement is in fact wrong, misleading, and misses the point - as the footage of George Floyd’s murder made so clear. By Joshua Searle
The obscene murder of George Floyd on 25 May shone the spotlight on the glaring inequalities and injustices in our society. The shocking scenes of a black man being suffocated by a white police officer, who had his knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, provoked shock, grief and outrage around the world. The horrific spectacle of a black man being suffocated to death was rendered all the more distressing by the faint sound of Floyd’s plaintive pleas to his murderers. “Officer, I can’t breathe”, Floyd pleaded repeatedly as the life drained out of his crushed body.
This horrifying footage of a black man literally being crushed to death triggered a wave of protest and brought issues of racism and social injustice to the forefront of the political and social agenda. Many churches and Christian organisations issued statements condemning the brutal murder. However, although it was encouraging to see some Christians taking an unequivocal stand against racism, it was also frustrating and disappointing to see many others taking refuge in the bland, universalising cliché that “all lives matter.” In this blog, I want to explain why I believe that this seemingly noble statement is in fact wrong, misleading, and misses the point, as the footage of Floyd’s murder made so clear.
What was required from churches in response to the murder of George Floyd was not liberal, pseudo-inclusive clichés and high-minded moral platitudes, but resolute and unequivocal solidarity with black people, whose bodies and souls continue to be blighted by the curse of racism. As a vague aspirational philosophical statement of liberal universalism, it is in some sense true that “all lives matter.” But in a more profound sense – the sense of compassion, empathy and solidarity – the statement is a lie. It is wrong and is a diversion from what really matters at this time: tragically, it does not express the harsh reality of the world today in which Black lives are routinely devalued by racist attitudes that find expression in unjust social and political systems.
The inadequacy of seemingly inclusive statements can be seen by analogy: If I am attending my grandfather’s funeral, I would not be comforted if someone were to say to me, “it’s sad about your granddad, but everyone’s granddad dies eventually.” Likewise, after the Manchester bombing atrocity in May 2017, the tagline, “We Stand with Manchester”, was shared widely in the media. It would have been completely tactless, even offensive to the people of Manchester, to have said, “We Stand with All Cities.”
No matter how “true” (in the most superficial and banal sense) such universalising statements might be, they would be seen as totally crass and inappropriate for the occasion. This is why the platitude, “all lives matter”, is a similarly thoughtless and insensitive response to the murder of a black brother at the hands of racist thugs, masquerading in police uniform as the forces of “law and order”.
What black brothers and sisters needed from the church after the murder of George Floyd was not expressions of sympathy or vague platitudes about how “God values the lives of all people”. What was needed was resolute solidarity and costly repentance.
The lame response of many churches to George Floyd’s murder reminded me that the duty of solidarity has not been adequately emphasised in our theology or preaching today. This may partly explain why solidarity has become something of a forgotten virtue in our churches. It’s a word that we don’t often hear, even though it is one of the key moral imperatives of the Christian faith. If one part of the Body of Christ is bleeding, the pain should be felt in a visceral way by all other members of the Body.
Yet instead of solidarity and empathy, we have complacency and ignorance. Apathy is prevalent even among Christians – those who are supposed to be ‘the salt of the earth’. The world is weeping from the constant assault of inhumanity and cruelty. Tragically, George Floyd was just one example of the crucifixion of black people in the world today. Christ, therefore, remains on the cross today. God continues to be crucified anew every day because of the racism and cruelty that people inflict upon their fellow human beings.
So we need to ask the question: What’s the point of claiming to be a Christian, a follower of the Suffering Servant, a disciple of the Crucified Messiah, if we have nothing to offer but sentimental platitudes that express a thoughtless indifference towards suffering people? Indifferent Christians – apathetic “believers” whose hearts don’t rage with indignation at the injustice of a sin-intoxicated world that can put its knee on the neck of a person who bears the divine image – such “Christians” are denying their God-given calling to promote and live God’s Kingdom here on Earth. They are ‘no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot’ (Matt. 5:13).
As well as solidarity, our black brothers and sisters need our repentance and they need to see the fruits of such repentance. By repentance, I don’t mean a verbal apology that we say once and then we’re finished. Repentance from a biblical perspective is a way of life that actively confronts sin whenever it gains ground in our thinking and behaviour. Repentance is a way of living, rather than a one-off event.
Similarly, the sin of racism is not a one-off event, but is something that we encounter every day in our dealings with individuals and with systems and organisations that are institutionally racist. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all live with and participate in the patterns and practices of racism. What the Apostle Paul calls “the dividing wall of hostility”, which creates enmity between people of different races, is continually being rebuilt and needs to be continually torn down.
When we, the church, have become accustomed to tearing down this wall on a daily basis, then, and only then, will we be in a position to say with truth and integrity that, “All Lives Matter.” We’re not there yet and there is still a huge amount of work to do. God, have mercy upon us.
Joshua T. Searle is Tutor in Theology and Public Thought; and Director of Postgraduate Studies at Spurgeon's College
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