Whose Life Matters?

Give me a slogan I can act on, a saying so true and clear that I must change myself, one with words that compel and inform my behavior. I want to do my part in changing our bitterly divided culture. I’m looking for a call to action, particularly about how I can assert that people’s lives indeed have value. IMG_0089

“Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” show some promise, but out of their contexts they stand as philosophical statements about human value and carry no explicit calls to action. These lives matter, yes, I agree. Now what?

Well, some might say that those slogans have plenty of action to offer. They will say that once set in context of the current national debate, “Black Lives Matter” infers that police practices display systemic racism and that I am called to advocate for this to change. But I am not sure the inferences of systemic racism are true. And even if they are, the call to action is not to me, except as an advocate. The real call to action from these slogans is to those in power, that they must somehow reform the system.

I want a slogan that will call upon me to effect change, not merely advocate that others do. I want to change the culture with actions more effective than marching, protesting, or uselessly arguing on Facebook.

The life I must value first must be a specific person. Referring to a whole class of people is as highly conceptual as it is divisive, and it shirks the responsibility to give immediate help to specific persons. (Lack of specificity about whose lives are named in the slogan is why “all lives matter” provides even less help).

Neighbor, then, is the better term—a specific person, someone (as we shall see) not just near my address, but who has entered my sphere of influence. Yes, black and blue lives matter, but I seek a life that matters that is right in front of me, or that has crossed my path, or in some way entered my world.

Another deficit to the “lives matter” sayings is this verb “to matter.” Again, it does not prevail upon me. It’s rather like insisting that someone has got to be important to other people. It asserts that, by golly, you all better realize how important these lives are to you. Again, this is swell, and I sure do wish that other people would change their ways, but I do not want a slogan about what others must do, but what I must do.

If we really want all these other people to change, it must start first with me, and how I value the people in my life.

I must love. No other word requires my action so deeply. That’s truly how to make someone matter—to love them. And with the words “love” and “neighbor,” we have gone retro, I realize. Go with what you know, I say. The never-worn-out “Love your neighbor” is personal, specific, quiet and effective, not to mention divine. The slogan does not make the news, but if we turn off the news and all start loving our neighbors, imagine how the world would change.

This does not refer only to loving the guy next door, nice as he is. The person who heard Jesus say “love your neighbor” immediately wanted to limit the definition of “neighbor.” This inquirer did not want to be obligated to the wrong kind of people. He asked “who, then, is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Maybe you know the parable well. A man, an Israelite, was robbed and beaten to within an inch of his life. Religious people from his own faith did not stop to help him, but a foreigner did. That was the Samaritan. He cared for the person in need on his way, and thus defined “neighbor.”

The Samaritan was not the guy next door. He was not even of the same ethnic group, country or religion. Keep in mind that the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; one would hardly call the other a neighbor. Yet Jesus rightly teaches that the Samaritan, the one actively loving another in need, even an enemy, was the neighbor.

And the neighbor is not a class of people. A neighbor is a specific person with needs whom we encounter on our way, as we go. Jesus did speak of groups of people whose lives mattered, yes (“blessed are the poor”), but when he was pressed to classify the group defining “neighbor,” he did not speak of a class of people that mattered, that was to receive our love. He spoke of an individual with needs. The one whom we encounter on our way.

Whose life matters? I could say “my neighbor’s life matters!” but the better saying is the ancient and divine one: Love your neighbor. This is the clerk, the salesperson, the agent, the panhandler, the musician, the refugee, the other driver, the family member, friend, the lady scanning my groceries, the lonely guy in front of me in church, the gay couple across town, the grumpy patriot I know on Facebook whose every opinion is angry. These people enter my world in some way, and when they do I know their names. They become neighbors, no matter where they live.

There, with them, valuing them, listening, and befriending them. That is where my neighbor is, that is the person to value, the one with needs on my way. If I am to be an agent for world change, it will be there that it starts. Unnoticed by news cameras, unheralded except in heaven, it is the neighbor’s life that has value, and this is not proved if I say it, but only if I do it.