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WHY do Black lives (or any lives) matter?

Back to all sermons Justice

Date: September 19, 2021

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Justice

Scripture: Genesis 1:26–1:27

This fall, I am preaching a sermon series I have entitled “Justice,” looking at what the Bible has to say about justice and how to evaluate the cultural messages on justice that are all around us. Last week, I began with three preliminary comments that I want to repeat this week. First of all, this is not a political sermon series or a social science lecture series. I will be trying to stay in my lane as a pastor, helping our church to know Jesus and to follow Him better. My hope is to open up the Bible in order to give you principles that will inform a Biblical worldview on justice and show why it is preferable to the different worldviews out there, so that you can walk faithfully with Jesus by loving God and loving your neighbor. Secondly, as I said last week, I recognize that this is a dangerous subject to tackle these days, and I do not expect everyone to agree with every word I speak. I do expect, however, that we will model speaking the truth in love. If you disagree with me on something I say, or have other insights or experience that you feel would enhance my understanding or my teaching, please speak up. Consider this an invitation to a conversation. And thirdly, my goal in this series is not to help us wag our finger at the world for acting like the world, but to challenge the church to do better in this area.

 

Having said that, let me begin with prayer.

 

Black lives matter. Black lives matter is the tweet that became a hashtag that became a slogan that became an organization that became a movement. It’s a statement that hopefully we can all agree on, while also connected to an organization that is much more controversial. But in today’s sermon, I’m not going to focus on the organization or the statement. I just want to ask a simple question that, despite my attempts at Googling, I could not find an answer to anywhere. The question is, “Why do Black lives matter?” I can’t find an explanation anywhere. On their website, I just find an affirmation, an assertion that it is true: We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.

 

But why? WHY do Black lives, or any lives, matter? Why do the lives of the elderly matter? Why does the life of the mentally ill, or the physically handicapped, matter? Why does your life matter? And if there is oppression or discrimination, WHY should that not be so?

 

Now, most of us in American seem to instinctively know that every person who crosses our path, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual preference, gender, and so on, comes with certain rights: the right not to be mistreated or abused, the right to be treated as a person of equal worth and dignity, the right to be listened to and respected. But why do they have those rights?

 

Maybe talk of rights makes you think of the Declaration of Independence. Doesn’t that claim that all men are created equal? But why do they have these rights, according to our founding fathers? Because they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. The founding fathers recognized that civil rights and dignity and concepts of justice were grounded in belief in a Creator. Specifically, they believed that human beings had rights and dignity because every human being is created in the image of God. The idea of the image of God comes from Genesis 1:26-27:

 

Genesis 1:26-27 - Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."  27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

 

Notice the plural form – “our image,” as the Triune God talks about making man and woman in His image. As I pointed out last week, our current American culture is increasingly moving away from belief in a Creator, while simultaneously believing in the reality of human rights. But arguing for human rights while not believing in a Creator is much harder than you may realize. So let me ask again: Why do black lives matter? Why do any lives matter? Where can we look to ground this assertion?

 

  • Maybe nature teaches us that they matter

 

The founding fathers believed that rights were grounded in the reality of a Creator who created us in His image. But as the atheist Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, “The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation, and souls, what does it mean that all people are “equal”?... “Homo sapiens has no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas, and chimpanzees have no natural rights.”

 

When you remove the Creator, you are left with a big problem when it comes to human rights and believing that every life matters. When we look at nature, we do not see that beings are equal or that justice is a thing. Instead, we see natural selection, survival of the fittest. Different creatures are not equal physically or mentally, nor are they equal in abilities or appearance. In nature, the strong survive and the weak die out. That’s just the way the world works. And we don’t cry “injustice” when a praying mantis bites the head off of her mate, or when a cat kills a mouse.

 

We can not look to nature and come up with the concept of human rights and justice. As G. K. Chesterton said, “(The secular man) goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts.”

 

More and more, belief in a Creator who made us in His image with value and dignity has been replaced by the belief that we are simply products of a godless evolution that could not care less about us. Evolutionary theory of course teaches us that we are nothing more than highly evolved animals, distant cousins to apes. Nevertheless, we still instinctively cry “injustice” when we see humans treating each other as if they were apes.

 

So again, I ask: Why do Black lives matter if there is no God? Charles Darwin, the man most responsible for the theory of evolution, believed that evolution proved that some races were superior to others, that Africans and Aborigines were not as highly evolved as Caucasians. He wrote this in The Descent of Man: “At some future period, not very distant measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

 

It's astonishing, but not surprising, in this age when historical figures are being canceled for racist words, that the cultural elite have not seen fit to cancel the evolutionary theory for its blatantly racist roots. Once again: take away God, and you’ve lost the basis for justice and human rights and opened the door for discrimination and oppression.

 

Years ago, I saw a short Nazi propaganda film called Opfer der Vergangenheit (Victims of the Past). This 1937 movie appealed to natural selection in order to bolster public support for the planned T-4 Euthanasia Program for the mentally ill, which they called “inferior life-forms,” so that they would not weigh down the progress of humanity. The film begins with these words: “All that is non-viable in nature invariably perishes… we humans have transgressed the laws of natural selection in the last decades.  Not only have we supported inferior life-forms, we have encouraged their propagation.” The film laments that healthy, “normal” people are living in ramshackle hovels while the mentally ill are housed in beautiful buildings, asylums for the mentally infirm. The answer, this video argues, is to stop transgressing the laws of natural selection and kill off the mentally ill.

 

This argument may horrify you, but it is perfectly consistent with the evolutionary idea of survival of the fittest. This is exactly what we would expect if we were just highly evolved animals.

 

And as the author Andrea Dilley put it, “In a naturalistic worldview, a parentless orphan in the slums of Nairobi can only be explained in terms of survival of the fittest. We’re all just animals slumming it in a godless world, fighting for space and resources. The idea of justice doesn’t really do anything. To talk about justice, you have to talk about objective morality, and to talk about objective morality, you have to talk about God.”

 

Take away a Creator, and you are not going to end up with convictions about human rights just by looking at nature. As the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, sarcastically put it, “Man descended from apes; therefore, we must love one another”?

 

If our ideas of justice and human rights don’t line up at all with what we would expect if we were just the product of a godless evolution, then maybe the answer is that we are men and women created in the image of God.

 

Okay, so we can’t look to nature. But maybe you believe that we still don’t need a God, that reasonable people can still come together and recognize that treating people equally is a good idea, and vote rights into existence.

 

  • Maybe we can establish rights through majority vote

 

But there is a big problem with that approach to grounding human rights and justice. After all, if rights are simply somethings that humans create by majority rule, then rights can be given and rights can be taken away. Was slavery just and moral when the majority said it was, and then suddenly unjust when the majority said otherwise? Was gay marriage suddenly become just and morally right when the majority said it was? Was abortion immoral before Roe v. Wade and moral afterwards? If human rights are something we can create, then of what benefit are they? The problem with creating human rights is that they are of no use to the minority unless there is something greater to appeal to. The whole point of human rights is that a minority can speak to the majority and say, “we know you believe this is right, but it is objectively WRONG, no matter how many of you believe otherwise.”

 

So WHY do Black lives matter? If survival of the fittest wouldn’t lead us to believe that Black lives matter, and if majority rule can’t be the answer, then what’s left? Because I say so? Because I will call you a racist and cancel you if I disagree? I will say it again: take away God, remove belief in a Creator, and you’ve lost the basis for justice and human rights.

 

No, there is a real answer to the question. The Christian can say with confidence that Black lives matter because every Black person is created in the image of God. The Christian can say that enslaving or discriminating against Black people was always wrong, even when the majority of people were doing it, because they are created in the image of God. The Christian can say that the elderly, the immigrant, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, and even the unborn child matters because they are all created in the image of God.

 

The idea of human rights has its origin in Christianity and in the Biblical teaching of the image of God.

 

So what is the image of God and what are its implications?

 

  • Our purpose is to represent and reflect God

 

Genesis 1:26-27 - Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

 

Representation and reflection. We represent him here on earth, ruling over His creation. And we reflect Him like an angled mirror to the world. People should be able to look at us and see what God is like. God is holy. God is love. God is just. God is relational. Wow, we have messed that up. But there is hope, and I will get back to that in a few minutes.

 

  • You have objective and inestimable worth and dignity

 

Take away the idea of the image of God, and how do you know that your life has any value?

 

As the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, put it: “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher answer’– but none exists”

 

That’s the cold truth of evolution. You are an accident, and there is no higher answer to life. But because of the Creator, you are valuable because you are made in the image of God.

 

Your self-worth does not come from yourself or what you do or what you have done. You could be Mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, but wherever you fall on that spectrum, you have an objective and inestimable worth and dignity as someone created in the image of God. But notice that this worth and dignity comes to you from outside, from God’s glory, just like a mirror can not produce its own light but is dependent upon a light outside of itself to give it glory. You have an objective glory and significance and value that nothing can ever take away, because you are created in God’s image.

 

Psalm 139:13-14 - For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

 

  • Every person deserves to be treated as a person of inestimable worth and dignity

 

Each person is first and foremost an image-bearer, before their race, gender, sexual orientation, physical attractiveness, political persuasion, or anything else.

 

Listen to how God grounds his prohibition against murder:

 

Genesis 9:5-6 - And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.  6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.

 

And look at how James takes this even further:

 

James 3:9-10 - With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.

 

Not only should we not murder another person because they have been made in the image of God, we should not even curse them.

 

This is where those who fought for equal rights grounded their argument. Consider again MLK, in his sermon “The American Dream”:

 

You see, the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the imago dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are no gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man.

 

How does that change things when we see each other as image bearers? Listen to how C.S. Lewis put it in The Weight of Glory:

 

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit— immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

 

We treat each other with dignity as men and women who bear the image of God.

 

Now, sadly, we have failed to do justice, to accurately reflect God’s image, to treat others as fellow image-bearers the way that we each deserve. But there is hope, for there was one who came who was the perfect image of God:

 

John 14:8-10 - Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us."  9 Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?  10 Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.

 

Colossians 1:15-17 - He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.  17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

 

Jesus, the perfect image of God, is the angled mirror revealing the glory of God to us. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. But despite the fact that Jesus was the perfect image of God, Jesus suffered and experienced incredible injustice. He was homeless, almost the victim of infanticide, poor, tortured, the victim of an unjust trial, and nailed to a cross, even though he was the only perfect image of God. But He did this voluntarily to pay the penalty for our sins. Trust in Him, and you will be a new creation, forgiven, with eternal life, and His Spirit inside of you.

 

Ezekiel 36:26-27 - I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

 

And if we want to truly do justice and uphold human rights, we need to become more like Him.

 

2 Corinthians 3:13-18 - We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.  14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.  15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.  16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.  17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  18 And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

 

We reflect the Lord’s glory as we look upon Him, His character, His love, His sacrificial death for us. Enter into a relationship with Him. Get to know His will, and follow it.

 

Why do Black lives matter? Why do the lives of the unborn matter? Why does the old woman with dementia in the nursing home matter? Why does the child with Down Syndrome matter? Why does your enemy matter? Why do YOU matter? Because they are all created in the image of God. That is the only proper place to ground our work for human rights and justice. Look to Him this morning, that He might transform you more and more into an angled mirror that reflects His glory, justice, and love to this world.