Archive for December 2014

Do Black Lives Matter Or Is Their Loss ‘Ungrievable”?   Leave a comment

Journalist Mattieu Aikins has used the phrase “ungrievable lives” to explain how, from an American perspective, some lives are more valuable than others. In reality, some lives matter to us so little that their loss can be said to be “ungrievable.” In somewhat crude terms, the approach we take could be compared to a poker game. Everyone is holding cards, and some cards are better than others. High cards beat out low cards.

For example, in the category of what is usually thought of as race:
White beats Asian / Asian beats Brown / Brown beats Black / Black beats Native American

Or as applied to economic status:
Rich beats Middle Class / Middle class beats Poor
Poor beats Homeless / Homeless beats Incarcerated (or ex-con)

Or social status:
“Successful” or Popular beats Unknown / Unknown beats Invisible

Or based on education:
Highly Educated beats Somewhat Educated / Somewhat Educated beats Uneducated

Or mental health:
Healthy beats Unhealthy / Unhealthy beats Mentally unhealthy

And the miscellaneous category:
Male beats Female / Pretty beats Ugly / Skinny beats Fat

Finally, we can return to where Matthieu Akins* started us off:
North American lives beat European lives / European lives beat Asian lives /
Asian lives beat Central American lives / Central American lives beat African lives
African lives beat (Middle Eastern) Muslim lives

Now, obviously the game changes depending on where it’s played, and who is playing – and these are just my guesses as to how many who play where I live would see it. And what I’m talking about is really not the game itself, but the guide to the game – its rulebook.

Mattieu Aikins’ concern about “ungrievable lives” had to do with American reporters killed in the Middle East, compared to poor Afghan children killed by the U.S. in drone strikes. We grieved the deaths of the journalists (whose deaths have been reported and whose names are known), but for us, the children’s lives were generally unnoticed and consequently, “ungrievable”. We don’t know their names, and we’re really not thinking or that concerned about them.

My concern centers around the recent discussion of the controversial hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The phrase has become a rallying cry lately because of police killings of unarmed black males. The phrase might not seem controversial, but it is. As a society we say we agree that all lives matter (even though, as I’ve suggested, we don’t play the game that way), so some object to saying it – to saying that Black lives matter – “Do they matter more?”, “Isn’t it obvious?”,  “Who said they don’t?”, “What about White lives?”, etc.

When we think about the game and the rulebook, we realize why black lives may not matter (in reality), or why under certain circumstances, they might matter less than others. For instance, how “grievable” is the loss of a black, ex-con with little education and some mental health issues? How is that man’s status any different from that of the drone victim with a different ethnicity from us, who lives in a different (read inferior) country than we do, who is relatively poor, probably an adherent of a different (unappreciated) religion, and is, for all these reasons, virtually invisible to us?

We owe Mattieu Aikins gratitude for the label, since it forces us to think about our assumptions. If indeed, we see some lives are more grievable than others, then we can no longer pretend that we value human life as valuable in and of itself (e.g., as “made in God’ image”, as Christians teach). We can no longer pretend that rich, powerful, beautiful, successful, educated “Americans” are not more valuable than others. We have to admit that we’re playing a certain (shameful) game, whose rules spell out very clearly what caste each person is in, and consequently how they are to be valued and treated.

Recently one Congressman’s criticism of Eric Garner apparently included the statement that Garner might not have died if he wasn’t so obese. That is, he was irresponsible about his weight, and therefore bore at least some responsibility for his death. And, I suppose we are to conclude, that our anger should decrease accordingly. Eric Garner was not only black, poor, unhealthy (other medical conditions besides his weight) and fairly invisible – but to top it off he was “irresponsible.” (That’s not explicit in the rulebook, but it fits with the basic approach.) His life is less grievable – and apparently for some – but not including the family he left behind – “ungrievable.” He is a victim of the rulebook approach. The phrase #BlackLivesMatter insists that the game is rigged and doesn’t make sense in light of ultimate realities. Many individuals who are highly respected would not do well according to the rules of our game, for instance, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus himself. If genocide, racism, totalitarianism, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing are abhorrent to us, it’s only because all lives matter. It’s because, on some level, we believe that each person has been created by God, can come to know God, can be a God-bearer, and is sought out by God as a friend. Besides these obviously religious reasons, there is also the fact that our lives are intertwined, as Martin Luther King famously said, so that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  John Donne put it this way:

“No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were:
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls;
it tolls for thee.”


* I have constructed all the categories and examples. The only thing I’ve borrowed from Mattieu Aikins is his term “ungrievable lives.”

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