All Lives Matter…really?

In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all. Eldridge Cleaver

I remember hearing a great explanation as to why “All Lives Matter” is not helpful…and, in fact, may truly be the antithesis of helpful. The story is as follows. It was the middle of a funeral and the rabbi was giving a eulogy, recalling the life of the departed. Suddenly, a woman stood up and yelled, “My father died too!” While this woman was right, it was not appropriate for the issue at hand. Yes, lots of people die, but at that moment we were concerned about the one whose funeral this was. We all suffer injustices during our lives (at least I think most of us do); it’s just that the focus of Black Lives Matters is the proverbial deceased laid out in front of us.

Another analogy is that of the fire department getting an alarm for a fire and going out and spraying down all the houses with water. It is true that all houses are important, but the one on fire deserves more attention at that moment. The African American community is the house on fire now.

The other thing about All Lives Matter, is that most people (IMHO) who use that phrase don’t really believe it or understand what it should really mean. Do the lives of homeless people on the streets really matter? Do the lives of immigrants coming to this country without proper documentation really matter? Do the lives of schoolchildren whose classrooms are scenes of horrific gun violence really matter? All Lives Matters is a phrase that gets bandied around in certain corners of society, but if these folks really believed it, our nation wouldn’t be in the mess in which we find ourselves. As a society, we behave is if there really are lives that don’t matter.

Here’s a true story to taught me about the value of life. About 20 years ago, I met a man who was serving a very long term at a local state correctional facility. The chaplain at the prison contacted me because this man was Jewish and he, along with a few other Jewish prisoners, were hoping that a local rabbi might be able to visit every now and again. I had been visiting him for a couple of years when, I left that community and moved to another part of the state. I figured that would be the last I would see of him. A few months later, I got a phone call from a corrections health care facility in my new community; the chaplain said that this same inmate was being treated for a very serious cancer and was requesting that I come and visit. I was saddened to hear this news and figured that I was going to have to do some end-of-life counseling with him.

When I got to the medical facility, we went back to his dorm and had a conversation that I will remember as long as I live. He was trying to decide whether to undergo treatment for the cancer. In my mind, this was a no-brainer. Dealing with cancer is hard enough for the typical person; how much more difficult would it be without the support system of family and friends, not to mention the inability to make major decisions about where to get the proper care? On top of that, his sentence was so long that it didn’t seem to make sense to try to get better, only to have live behind bars the rest of his life anyway. I assumed he was seeking some kind of religious “permission” that would allow him to refuse treatment.

The conversation could not have possibly unfolded in a way that was further from my expectations. He had already decided to undergo treatment and wanted to let me know so that I could be part of his support system. I asked him why he had decided to go ahead with chemotherapy and all the rest. He told me that during his prison term he had the opportunity over the years to interact with younger inmates–especially Jewish ones–and sort of “mentor” them; he got them involved in religious life at the prison; he tried to counsel them not to make the same mistakes that he did; he tried to inspire them to live a better life once they were released. He told me that if he were to get better and inspire just one other inmate, it would be worth it.

I was ashamed of myself. I had assumed that his life was not a life worth living. How wrong could I have possibly been? My worldview changed and I have never been the same. I realized that the life of a convicted felon matters. Is that included in All Lives Matter?

I am heartbroken about the killing of George Floyd and so many others. I am trying to listen and learn…as I did that one afternoon at the corrections medical facility.

Black Lives Matter.

It is true that All Lives Matter–even the homeless, the undocumented immigrant, innocent children at school, convicted murderers. I challenge those who say All Lives Matter to really live up to what they are so cavalierly saying. If they do, they would realize that right now, our attention belongs squarely focused on the African American community and the injustices that have been and are heaped upon it. All houses matter…but the one that is on fire and has been burning for a long time needs our attention now.

Black Lives Matter.

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