From Invitation to Christian Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues
Though there are multiple factors, the shift from hope to fear and anger is symbolized by the movement that came to be known as Black Lives Matter. The movement began in 2013 after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2012 killing an unarmed seventeen-year-old black man named Trayvon Martin. In response, Alicia Garza posted on social media what so many other black people were thinking: “Black people are not safe in America.” Garza’s friend Patrisse Cullors reposted with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, and a movement was born, protesting police brutality against black people, as well as what many in the movement believe to be indifference to the killing of black people.
The story of Trayvon Martin is not an isolated incident. The names and events are etched in the psyche of so many people of color: Jordan Davis (2012), Renisha McBride (2013), Eric Garner (2014), John Crawford (2014), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Walter Scott (2015), Freddie Gray (2015), Alton Sterling (2016), Jordan Edwards (2017) Stephon Clark (2018), Ahmaud Arbery (2020), Breonna Taylor (2020), and George Floyd (2020). All of these were black people killed, in most (but not all) cases, by police officers or while in police custody. They include a range of circumstances, and in some cases the death resulted in a conviction and prison sentence for persons responsible, while in others charges were dropped or the person charged for the death was acquitted. The reasons that these and other cases received national attention and galvanized a movement are numerous, but at the core was the sense that the deaths were either criminal or unnecessary, and it seemed to many black people that many simply didn’t care about those who were killed because they were black.
These cases highlight the racial tensions in America. Many in the Black Lives Matter movement cite such cases to underscore their view that black people in America are not safe and many live in fear. They argue that the civil rights movement made significant gains, but there is a long way to go. Critics have said that Black Lives Matter is different from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, in part because it is difficult to tell the activists from opportunists that burn and loot and visit demonstrations with hate speech and profanity. One civil rights activist complained that “even if the BLM activists aren’t the ones participating in the boorish language and dress, neither are they condemning it.” Other critics have responded to the movement with slogans of their own, like “All Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter” (a reference to police who are killed in the line of duty, or simply who put themselves in harm’s way).
There may be reasonable debate about whether a particular killing was justified, and there may be problems with aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement, but the underlying point should not be missed. Many black people who have done no wrong live in fear in twenty-first-century America, or simply have grown used to being looked on with suspicion. That should not be the case. The feelings of many black people are summed up in remarks by President Obama after the not-guilty verdict was issued by the jury in the Trayvon Martin case:
When you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. . . . There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. . . . There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. . . . There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. . . . Those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
African Americans, and other people of color, can tell of countless similar experiences. The reality of daily life for many African Americans has led some to refer to a phenomenon of being pulled over for “driving while black.” To respond to the Black Lives Matter movement by asserting that “all lives matter” is to remain tone-deaf to what our black neighbors and friends, our Christian brothers and sisters, are pleading for white people to understand. Perhaps, instead of responding in such a way, or seeking to defend and explain a particular case, we may start simply by grieving that our friends and neighbors, our brothers and sisters, have had to experience and endure such things.
. Elizabeth Day, “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement,” The Guardian, July 19, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/19/blacklivesmatter-birth-civil-rights-movement.
. For a description of most of these cases, see Holly Yan, “ ‘Black Lives Matter’ Cases: When Controversial Killings Lead to Change,” CNN, May 4, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/04/us/black-lives-matter-updates-may-2017/index.html; and Jonathan Capehart, “From Trayvon Martin to ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ” Washington Post, February 27, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/02/27/from-trayvon-martin-to-black-lives-matter.
. Barbara Reynolds, “I Was a Civil Rights Activist in the 1960s. But It’s Hard for Me to Get Behind Black Lives Matter,” Washington Post online, August 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/24/i-was-a-civil-rights-activist-in-the-1960s-but-its-hard-for-me-to-get-behind-black-lives-matter.
. Capehart, “From Trayvon Martin to ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”
This post is adapted from Invitation to Christian Ethics by Ken Magnuson. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
“Magisterial in its scope and account of Christian ethics, Ken Magnuson has offered us the benefits of his years of thoughtful analysis and faithful teaching in a seminary context. Rich in biblical exposition and practical application, the volume is more than an invitation to Christian ethics, it is an immersion. Magnuson makes his case elegantly and treats his opponents respectfully. This is a model of irenic pastoral ethical reflection on some of the pressing moral issues of our day.”
C. Ben Mitchell, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University