(Or: why I spent two hours arguing with him on Twitter)
I was 19 years old when Kanye West commented that George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people. At the time, I was a sophomore in college, involved with my College Republicans group and had voted for Bush in the previous election year (my first time actually voting). I remember being offended that Kanye would say something like that, and commenting at the same time that he was probably racist for pointing out the color of the victims of Katrina.
Ten years later, I look back on my colorblind self and cringe. I thought I had a handle on the world (which, even at 29, is silly of me to think). I thought I knew all there was to know about race and gender and life. My womanhood didn’t matter to me, so I insisted people see me the same as they see men – which means that my unique femininity got erased in the process. I said I didn’t mind the erasure then, because I believed God created us all the same. And those people who insisted on putting their blackness or their womanhood or their, gasp, queerness at the forefront of their faith were simply ignoring that God created us all human.
This is a common political philosophy and theology and way of looking at the world. We’re all human; we’re all God’s creatures. The good, the bad, the ugly, all under one gigantic tent of God’s love and God’s creation. In a way, this is what a lot of the appeals for marriage equality and racial equality have contained – a recognition that I am human too, goshdarnit. Appeals to our basic humanity – our shared human-ness – are important from the perspective of the marginalized. They are a declarative statement from a position of oppression within a system that denies their humanity.
When activists declare that black lives matter, they are defiantly responding to a system that consistently ignores and denies the impact and importance of specifically black lives. Saying “my life matters” as a marginalized person is a push to be recognized as a person with that identity, not as a person separate from that identity.
This is the context that is missed by a song off Gungor’s latest album. In “We Are Stronger,” Gungor writes:
Give and take
snow and sand it’s all the same from far away
you and me
we’re the stuff of stars and dirt
Every black life matters
every woman matters
every soldier matters
all the unborn matter
every gay life matters
here’s to life and all its branches
all together we are stronger
we belong together.
In a disagreement with the writer on Twitter yesterday, he insisted at first that I was misunderstanding the context of the song, and then explained that he was arguing for solidarity outside of a political philosophy, that our existential root is the same. We are all stardust and stuff, and when we see ourselves in the Other, then we may be moved to act.
In some senses, he’s right, in that recognition of our shared humanity is a deeply important part of a reconciled and justice-oriented church. But such reconciliation will not be achieved if we continue to insist that “we are all the same on the inside,” as this song blatantly does.
Black Lives Matter is a revolutionary statement in the context of a system which denigrates and destroys black life. Placing such a powerful and important political, theological, and existential statement alongside statements that “fundamentalists matter” is to say that the marginalized and our oppressors are equal. On a basic level, such statements obfuscate the potency behind the centering of the marginalized that Black Lives Matter argues for. Gungor didn’t have to say “white lives matter” for the equivalence between oppressor and oppressed to be seen. Instead of ownership of his position within a system of oppression – Michael Gungor is a straight, cisgender, able-bodied man with money – the statements in “We Are Stronger” flatten and erase the importance of re-centering the marginalized within the dialogue of the church.
We don’t need to say that fundamentalist lives matter because that is a given. We don’t need to say that white lives matter because our system makes it clear that they do. We don’t even need to say that “every woman matters” because such statements erase the beautiful diversity that is capital W-Womanhood.
I exist as a bisexual white woman with hella privilege. Even if I’m affirming that black lives matter, the context in which I say that matters. If it’s followed – as presidential candidate Martin O’Malley did at Netroots Nation in July – by “white lives matter, all life matters,” my statement of solidarity loses all weight it could have carried.
Gungor’s song is well-intentioned, but as we know, intention doesn’t erase poor wording or artistry. As my friend Sarah Moon is fond of saying, the moment my abuser is welcome at the table, I am not. If an affirmation that my life matters is only carried within the context of saying that the person who oppresses me matters as well, then the radical sentiment disappears. It flattens my oppression, equalizes me with my oppressor, and ultimately places me on the back burner yet again.
Furthermore, Gungor’s song argues that Freedom and the Anchor exist side by side, that our community (as a church) is stronger because the oppressor and oppressed exist alongside each other. This is, itself, a deeply problematic and insulting statement. You cannot have freedom if the anchor remains extended. You cannot have night if the sun refuses to go down. You cannot have summer if the winter snow does not melt away. And the oppressed do not exist in a system where our oppressors willingly cede ground in an equal “give and take.”
What “We Are Stronger” ultimately does is call upon the oppressed to “recognize the humanity” of our oppressors. It re-centers the narrative and the dialogue of the oppressors, forcing us to be on the same team with those who would see us stoned and lynched and dead in the street. It is the call to recognize the humanity of people whose humanity was never in question, placing the burden of that solidarity upon the oppressed once again.
Calls for recognition of common humanity that come from the oppressor often fail to actually achieve the solidarity desired. It individualizes a systemic problem, once again disproportionately placing the burden on the marginalized to recognize the humanity of their oppressors. Whatever the intent, the result is yet another call for colorblind theology, starting from the moment Gungor sings that “it’s all the same from far away.” The problem here is not one of misunderstanding or even a lack of desire to understand. It is of a man with privilege failing to recognize his position within a system and (unintentionally or not) perpetuating that oppression by asking us to see his humanity as an individual. And I’m really not here for that.