Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Statues that have stood for more than a century are being pulled down. People are turning out in their thousands to rallies around the globe. The murder of George Floyd has started something of a movement. And yet in China hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are in re-education or forced labour camps; in Burma Rohingya are murdered, and their villages’ burnt; and about two thousands migrant labourers have died in Qatar building stadiums for the 2022 soccer world cup. Somehow we don’t get too upset by those wrongs.
Why is #BLM such a ‘thing’? This is actually a complex question. Most people will respond with a simple – because it’s wrong. It’s unjust. Enough is enough. But injustice is not new. Racism of one form or another is and always has been. Slavery is universal and timeless. Why are we toppling statues that have stood for generations NOW? Why are we so distraught by THIS expression of racism, or evil? Why are we not as concerned for yellow lives?
How Western cultures decide what is right and wrong has shifted of recent. Pride, greed and lust are no longer the deadliest of sins. They have been displaced by abuse, discrimination, and intolerance. How did this happen? And what does it mean?
In the past a sin was an action that offended God. The Bible has been displaced by shared intuition. The goal is now the empowerment of others so they can flourish. The greatest sins are now those that prevent another from making free choices, and becoming all that they desire to be.
Nevertheless, current Western shared intuition has a Christian heritage. Tolerance and the dignity of all humanity are historically Christian virtues. If slavery is the most offensive form of racism, only twice in human history has systemic slavery been reversed. Both times by Christians. William Wilberforce in the early 1800s, and before that in early medieval Western Europe.
Yet #BLM is not just an anti-slavery or anti-racism movement. It is not focused around Yellow lives or disabled lives. It’s only about Black lives. Why?
In addition to the dignity of all human life, Western morality is also about guilt and innocence. Have I done the right action? If so, internally, I have a clear conscious. If not, I feel guilty, and the need to alleviate my guilt. Such feelings are not universal. Other cultures decide right from wrong within honour-shame frameworks (Asian and Middle-East), or within power-fear frameworks (Africa). Not us.
Westerners, even post-Christian Westerners, feel at ease when they have a clear conscious, and unsettled when they do not. There is something deep within our collective Western sub-conscious, our shared intuition, which feels guilty about the African American slave trade of the 18th century. Our prosperity, both historic and present, was (partly) built by their labours. This, for us as Westerners, was the greatest of evils that we were party to. This is the part of our conscious that we feel the need to purge.
What now seems intuitively noble to woke middle class white folk, is the virtue of righting previous wrongs. The greatest acts of social justice now revolve around empowering those who were previously the most discriminated against. Blacks top that list, followed by homosexuals and women. To stand up for these causes is to be seen to be just. To stand against (symbolically, by dismantling their statues) the historically powerful, be they political, military, or religious leaders is the other side of the same coin.
If that is why #BLM is such a ‘thing’ for our culture, how do I respond? Speaking personally, my greatest dilemma is not should I be concerned about Black lives and ongoing remnants of dis-empowerment. My greatest dilemma is how passionate should I get about THIS cause? There are other evils that demand attention. #BLM is presently front and centre. Should I get on this bandwagon? If I do, have I let others drive my priorities? And if I don’t, do I look dis-engaged with my culture.
Speaking as a sociologist, this is a fascinating moment in time. The world has been in lockdown. People are frustrated, voiceless, and feel powerless. Finally, a cause. Not in China, or Asia, but one closer to home. In this vacuum, western leadership has failed to delivered unity and hope. Hand clapping and virtual online choirs do not fill our urge to bring order out of chaos.
For me #BLM is good, but not good enough. It locates the problem over there, and in the past. It is but one face of a bigger problem. A problem that is both out there and within me, within us. Coronavirus has reminded Westerners that life is about more than work and toys and holidays. People are yearning for an invitation to be part of something bigger. #BLM will come and go. When it fades, do I just sit back and wait for the next #thing? Or does Jesus give us clues as to how to live the good life, in season and out of season?
Rev David Rietveld
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