When folks sport pink ribbons, and even the NFL drapes itself in pink, the message is that we care about people suffering with breast cancer and pledge to stand with them. We are essentially saying, “Breast Cancer patients, survivors and victims matter.” I know that you can find a ribbon color for lots of cancer types, but when the ribbons come out, few people angrily shout “All cancer patients matter!” in response.
When I was a chaplain in a cancer hospital my days were spent with folks who suffered from much more than the physical presence of the rogue cells named “cancerous” (hence, the reason for a chaplain). Cancer inflicts damage in emotional and spiritual ways that can erode a person’s identity. If you always thought of yourself as strong or vital, having a part of you removed or suffering the eroding side effects of chemo or radiation can make you doubt that image of yourself. Cancer can take away the livelihood that defined you and eat away at the relationships that shaped your existence. What does “I’m an accountant mean when you can’t work?” What does “I’m a mom or dad” mean when you are too weak to hold your kid? The disease can call into question the value of one’s life; one’s person hood.
As a chaplain, or any caring partner in cancer’s journey, you have to find ways to say, “You matter.” As a chaplain, there is an implied theological tag that attaches itself to a statement about what and who matters. The infinitive “to God” gets added reflexively when we say to one in pain, “You matter.”
The same is true whenever pain and suffering grips a life. A person who has suffered abuse and lives with an inner voice that constantly says, “You deserved what you received” needs to hear words of hope; a counter message that says, “You matter (to God and so, me) and don’t deserve to be hit or bullied.” When I meet with a divorced person who is sure that their mistakes have led them on some inevitable path to hell, I must find a way to say “You matter (to God, and so, to me). When a kid flunks a test and is sure that college is now off the table as a potential future, I have to find a way to say “You matter (to God, and so, to me) even if you flunk a test.”
I have often thought that we should all be more concerned about and advocate for the elderly in our society. Pushed to the margins, ignored, “stored” in nursing homes, often the victims of fraud and abuse to a greater degree than most, we need to pay attention and serve them better. Perhaps we could start a movement that proclaims, “Gray lives matter.” I doubt that such a movement would be met with a belligerent response like, “All ages matter.” Even though, obviously they do.
In the waters of baptism, we baptize an individual into the whole body of Christ. We pronounce the act of divine grace to the person receiving the water, and the message is clear: “You matter, to God and so, to us.” Baptism done with the words “Everyone matters” would fall flat and be drained of meaning. At my baptism, even though I was too young to fathom them, the words were “Timothy, I baptize you…” It is that personal assurance that gives hope and faith. It is the same when we receive the Lord’s Supper. We each hear “The body of Christ, given for you (your name implied here).” The meaning is clear – you matter. You, you broken, sinful, hypocrite who has made a mess of things; You, you shattered, struggling human wearing the threat of death and suffering like a sweater; You matter.
Finding a way to say “You matter (to God, and so to me)” is about the person, or people standing before you who feel diminished; who have had the imago Dei (image of God) that resides in them attacked; robbed; questioned. It is about loving your neighbor, because God loved them first – and that means they matter, cosmically, not just politically or ideologically.
Today, if you want to whip up dissent and misunderstanding, even hatred and violence, all you have to do is say “Black lives matter.” First, the response was, “All lives matter.” While true, I suppose, this misses the mark of showing compassion, care and love that the slogan is supposed to communicate, even demand. It seems to me that “All lives matter” is really just a way of saying “you don’t deserve anymore than I do.” Which is absolutely contrary to the gospel of Christ, who taught us to be servants of all and that the last shall be first, first shall be last. It also misses addressing the pain and inhumanity that is underneath the statement. Now, I see that groups are shouting “White lives matter” as a protest. This hate-filled response (complete with Nazi flags) is just evil. Besides, in this country, white lives have pretty much always mattered – especially if you were “red. brown, black or yellow.”
The point of saying “Black lives matter” is to address the pain of a whole community who is routinely shoved to the margins of society and endures violence and other evils ever day. To say “Black lives matter” is to embrace people who hurt and to tell them “you matter (to God and so, to me) in the midst of that pain. If you have any black friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters in Christ; if you have even read a smattering of the volumes of material that chronicle racial hatred and racism in this country, you know that your fellow human beings who have far less pale skin than you do, suffer for that reason alone. Now, if you don’t believe that, I have to say, with all love, find some black friends and ask them to take you to school; read a book, literally for God’s sake, because you are living in denial.
I will continue to say “Black lives matter” as long as the pain exists and the problem persists. I will continue to say “Black lives matter” as long as there is any one who thinks they don’t. I will say it because I believe that when you are in pain, you need to hear, “your life matters (to God and so, to me.)” I will say it, because it is important and really – seriously – it is the least (smallest, easiest) thing I can do for people made by God who matter. I will say (and act correspondingly) “Black lives matter” because, well, they do. That is just the truth.