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Cutting Edges: "Black Lives Matter" An Allusive Outro to 2014-15

By Dr. Brooke Lester, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Scripture

“...the God for whom BLACK. LIVES. MATTER.”

So rang out the voices of Garrett-Evangelical 2015 graduates Carmen C. Manalac-Scheuerman and Jacob M. Ohlemiller in the closing prayer of our commencement exercise. The phrase was doubly emphasized: the graduates’ two voices alternated for most of the prayer, but spoke these words slowly and firmly in unison. At this moment, the two graduates emulated the Bible in a particular way, speaking simultaneously to those “inside” and “outside.”

For those “inside,” the phrase was a familiar and fitting punctuation to the academic year of #FergusonSyllabus. The 2014-15 academic year began with protests in Ferguson, Missouri, against the police killing of Michael Brown and the preposterously militarized police response to local protests. It continued with the police killings of Eric Garner, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, and others. It concluded with the protests in Baltimore, Maryland, against the police killing of Freddie Gray. Throughout the year, educators nationwide collaborated urgently to keep the fact of our nation’s systemic, violent racism at the front of our course work in biblical studies, theology, history, literature, civics, science, mathematics. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” insists that this country’s original sin not get lost in the academic inertia of mixture-as- before syllabus planning.

For those on the “outside”—those who are not active in African-American churches, communities or schools; who don’t follow “Black Twitter” or attend faculty forums; who aren’t on any given day overhearing conversations about Whiteness and white privilege—for these, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” provokes questions. “Who doesn’t think that Black lives matter?” “Don’t all lives matter?” “What does the speaker want from me?”

The Bible speaks to those “inside” and “outside” by several means. Just as our graduates alluded to conversations that their audience would also know (or wouldn’t), biblical authors frequently allude to other biblical texts that they expected their audience also to know (or not).

The book of Daniel alludes frequently to Isaiah. Most of all, Daniel takes phrases that Isaiah once used to describe the nation of Assyria and uses those phrases to describe the Big Bad of its own day: the Greek king Antiochus IV, who had been brutally suppressing Judaism in Jerusalem for four gruesome years. To the reader recognizing the allusion, it becomes clear that, just as the God of Israel had eventually destroyed Assyria while preserving the people Israel, so it would be with Daniel’s own Villain of the Week. The reader confounded by the alluding phrases would be prompted to read (or re-read) Isaiah, in order to get into the conversation.

Paul alludes constantly to his scriptures, the Hebrew Bible. In Romans 15, Paul seeks to persuade his fellow Jewish followers of Jesus that his unique mission is to the Gentiles. To that end, he evokes Isaiah’s “suffering servant,” best known to Christians as a kind of prefiguring of Christ, but understood in Isaiah as the people Israel languishing in Babylonian Exile. From their exilic “death,” God would raise Israel to exulted status in a re-established Jerusalem. The Gentile nations, having previously spurned and abused the unglamerous backwater people Israel, would learn to their astonishment that the God of Israel is in fact God of the cosmos. Paul’s Jewish readers, knowing Isaiah, would see that God is acting for the Gentiles in Jesus just as previously in the “suffering servant,” exilic Israel. Paul’s Gentile readers, not knowing Isaiah, would seek to correct their bewilderment through catechesis.

The outside is painful. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently assured a Black church in Missouri that “all lives matter”...a phrase not untrue, but (unknown to Clinton) a phrase already used in the media to derail and dismiss any particular attention to Black lives here in the year of #FergusonSyllabus. The resulting backlash is an invitation to Clinton, and to all confounded by “Black Lives Matter”...an invitation to listening, to catechesis, to inclusion.