I have seen and heard a lot of white liberal religious people saying All Lives Matter as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and it causes my heart and my soul pain.
From a spiritual place, All Lives Matter says that we need to emphasize our same-ness instead of our difference. In the context of a political moment that seeks to call attention to and rectify state violence against black people, All Lives Matter is a colorblind approach and stance. Among other things, All Lives Matter says that deep down we are all the same, so differences shouldn’t matter. It says that calling attention to difference is wrong. This is a problem.
I am here to tell you that in my religious tradition, difference is valuable. Difference is beautiful. Difference is a gift. In my religious tradition, we are united in our understanding that each person has a different truth; our spiritual charge is to celebrate and receive each truth with curiosity and wonder. In my religious tradition we recognize that in the face of the great mysteries of the universe, it would be the most arrogant act imaginable to think that any one person could have a corner on truth.
What makes me a Unitarian Universalist is that I know that each differing understanding of that which is greater than oneself is true—every single truth is true—and instead of finding that fact terrifying, I find it exhilarating and awe-inspiring. It makes me so curious about other people’s experiences, their beliefs about the big questions, and the practices that call them home or connect them to something larger.
In short, in my religious tradition differences matter. They matter because it is only when each truth and each experience is brought forward and honored that we have a chance to know the unknowable, to open our hearts and minds and selves to each other and to the infinite nature of the universe and the divine. It is only when we understand our differences that we can fully bridge the separations between us and experience our one-ness.
This powerful spiritual practice of being curious about our differences, of honoring truths that are not our own, of opening our hearts to each other—this is not easy. In fact it may be the most difficult thing there is. You see, the wider culture I live in teaches me that there can only be one truth, that there can only be one right and many wrongs. The wider culture I live in also teaches me that differences are not valuable, differences shouldn’t matter, and ultimately we should all be striving for sameness. No matter who you are, my culture says, if you work hard enough you can achieve the best that society has to offer.
If differences don’t matter, like the culture I live in wants me to believe, it means that any difficulties I face must be my fault. If I’m poor, I just didn’t work hard enough, because differences don’t matter. If I have ill health, I just didn’t care for myself well enough, because differences don’t matter. If I am killed by the police, I must have done something wrong, because differences don’t matter.
Worse yet, my culture tells me that not only should differences not matter, but that it is difference itself that causes inequality. My culture says we should work hard to not see differences because if we can eradicate difference or at least act as though it doesn’t exist, then we will cure inequality. This couldn’t be more untrue. It isn’t difference that causes inequality, it is the devaluing of difference that causes inequality—the belief that some ways of being are better than others.
So the spiritual practice of valuing and honoring difference is really difficult. It is far easier to gloss over differences with sentiments like “we are all one” or “each of us is equal in the eyes of god.” It is far, far easier to say that calling attention to difference just serves to divide us. But here’s the thing: if I say that we are all one without doing the hard work of truly valuing the life of the stranger next to me as dearly as I value my own life, or my best friend’s life, then I am missing the point. If I say we are all one as a way of saying we are—or should be—all the same, I am taking the easy route that my culture espouses, a spiritually and morally devoid path.
It is against my religion for me to believe in the cultural teaching that differences don’t matter, or that we should all be the same. Because I am UU, I know that our lives and our truths are influenced by differences in identity, family history, cultural background, past experiences, and more. My gender, my age, my race, my sexuality all impact my relationship with the divine, and they also impact my experience in the world. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which we are all the same—life would lose all joy and wonder, all color and meaning.
Because I believe that all life is interconnected, that the stuff that forms my body is the same stuff that forms the stars, that a divine force flows through me and everything else that is, or was, or will be—because of this, what hurts a stranger in Ferguson, Missouri, hurts me. And if it doesn’t, I know I haven’t done the spiritual work to be present and connected to the ONE that we all are.
If I don’t feel your pain as my own pain, I have no business saying “we are all one.” Because although truly you and I are made from the same stuff, truly we are connected, I cannot be present to that one-ness, that same-ness, until I fully understand our differences and thus fully understand you in your authenticity, find joy in your joy and pain in your pain. It is disingenuous to say “we are all one” as a short cut when it is actually a transcendent truth that takes a lifetime of spiritual work to live up to and truly experience.
So do all lives matter? As a person of deep faith, I couldn’t believe this more firmly. But in a moment in which there is a profound need to call attention to the de-valuing of some lives—particular lives—it is essential that I, a white person, join my black siblings in proclaiming that yes, Black Lives Matter. Despite the truth that all lives matter, it is clear that black lives do not carry the same value as others in the elitist, imperialist, capitalist, dehumanizing system I am enmeshed in.
It is a deeply spiritual thing to say that despite hundreds of cultural messages every day that teach me a black life is worth less than my white life, despite the actions and impacts of the criminal-legal system on black people, despite extreme disparities in a thousand markers of well-being amongst black communities, despite all this and more—Black Lives Matter. Affirming this truth is one important step toward the day in which we can live the truth that all lives matter—and that we are all different, yet all one.