Since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, discussions of race in this country have been tense. His death, and the subsequent killings of unarmed black men and women at the hands of the police, have lifted the conversation on race out of black households and onto the national stage.
As the 2016 election cycle gears up, the longstanding issues of inequality, racial justice, and police brutality take on a new urgency. Just as the civil rights movement fought for legal recognition of African Americans’ fundamental human and civil rights, the Black Lives Matter movement looks to political leaders to respond to this injustice.
I have been watching to see what the presidential candidates say—and what they say they will do—about Black Lives Matter.
Politicians are strategically poised to address the inequalities in America’s social and economic systems. The activists within the Black Lives Matter movement and Campaign Zero are teaming up with both major political parties to coordinate a town hall-style forum for candidates to discuss race and criminal justice during the campaign. The issue did not come up at all during the last GOP debate (I’ll be watching to see if it does tonight).
The Democratic candidates responded to a question on Black Lives Matter during their debate earlier this month: “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner whom pundits deemed the winner that night, answered, “We’ve got to do more about the lives of these children. We need a new New Deal for communities of color.” Her response evaded the question and was nebulous at best—given the fact that she never explained what this “new New Deal” entails. In another question, she mentioned employing police body cameras and addressing mass incarceration.
But the Black Lives Matter movement is looking for more than vague responses. It’s easy for any candidate to pay lip service and voice their support without tangibly engaging the issues the movement seeks to address. In response to police brutality and systemic racism, Black Lives Matter is specifically calling for better accountability and training for law enforcement; independent investigations into police killings; and community involvement in overseeing officer misconduct.
As Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck says, “In a state, a people and its government are always most intimately bound up with each other.” Although Bavinck is noting the necessity of church-led government, he is also drawing on the example of earthly governments to argue for a positive link between politicians and those whom they serve.
Ideally, given Bavinck’s observation, we would see the oppressed lifted up as politicians act for their wellbeing. Presidential candidates would show concern for those who are disproportionately affected by police brutality and systemic inequalities. Doing so demonstrates that at the very least they acknowledge our common humanity. However, these sentiments are inadequate if they do not translate into political action.
One of these candidates will be elected as the next President of the United States of America. He or she will sign or veto laws that address systemic inequities at the federal level. In other words: he or she will have the ability to “let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), so that it might drench those who have endured the scorching heat of injustice for far too long.
In view of their platforms, policies, and strategies, regardless of our political leanings, we can and should look for candidates who demonstrate sincere concern over oppression, disparity, and injustice. These are not “niche interests.” Nor are they merely a way to appeal to African American voters. Instead, these are areas where the government can hear the concerns of its people and create better systems to sustain the “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” held by all.
Nevertheless, the call to shoulder the burdens of the oppressed is not left to the political candidates alone. As Christians, we affirm the inherent image of God in every man and woman (Gen. 1:26-27). After sin and injustice entered the world, our God defined a true fast as, “letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, and not hiding from our own flesh,” in addition to cultivating a contrite heart of humble submission to the Lord (Isa. 58).
Christians can be among the loudest voices to declare unequivocally that black lives do indeed matter. Such a statement does not detract from the inherent value of all lives; it simply provides public value and affirmation to lives that have been historically devalued and denigrated in the long record of our nation’s history. Brittany Cooper, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University, made this point succinctly saying, “Contained within the statement is an unspoken but implied ‘too,’ as in ‘black lives matter, too,’ which suggests that the statement is one of inclusion rather than exclusion.”
As an African American myself, I am particularly grieved by the killings of unarmed black men and women. When I read reports from experts that say that the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “reasonable,” my soul cries out in sorrow. How can it not, my fellow Christians? After all, God calls us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15).
I have a personal stake in this movement, and so do my fellow African American brothers and sisters in this country. We cannot continue living our lives looking at the flashing lights in the rear-view mirror wondering if we will live through a police encounter. That is survival—not life. As citizens of America, we want to ensure that little black boys like Tamir Rice are not gunned down while playing in city parks and little black girls like Aiyana Stanley-Jones are not killed in their sleep. The Black Lives Matter movement urges for better police training and oversight to ensure these kinds of mistakes don't happen.
What would it look like for communities like Ferguson to have more officers love the people in the neighborhoods they police by seeking the welfare of those whom they have sworn to serve and protect? We long to share in the sense of security and safety our white brothers and sisters experience in the presence of a police officer rather than the pulsating sense of anxiety and trepidation.
I know that ultimately my hope is in Christ, not in any system, government, or leader. Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection secured the coming kingdom of God. Because of that gospel reality, I have hope for tangible change in this present age, not just in the age to come. Therefore, to the candidates, I present a call to mete out justice on behalf of the oppressed. And to my fellow Christians, I present a plea to truly love your neighbor by demonstrating the same compassion as the Samaritan did to the man left for dead— for African Americans today are that man.
Ekemini Uwan is a Master of Divinity candidate at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She will graduate in May 2016 and is the winner of the 2014 Greene Prize in Apologetics for her essay entitled "Van Til, African Traditional Religion and The Prison of Unbelief." Ekemini writes intermittently for various Christian websites and often tweets, speaks, and opines about racism, theology, and the intersection of the gospel.
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