Feb10WedFebruary 10, 2016
In less than a year, my son, my first born, my baby, will be given over to the public school system. He already has a number. It’s a 10-digit code by which he is distinguished from all the other children in the Nashville public school system. This number reveals his age, place of birth, color of skin, home address, which schools he is and is not zoned for, what options are opened to him and what are closed. As the years go on it will probably reveal what scores he has received in which classes, how much time he spent in detention, which months he earned honor roll and so on.
But there is so much this number cannot say. It cannot tell his teachers that he is overwhelmed by loud noises and that his fingers become friends to talk to when the world around him is too much to bear. It cannot tell the school administrators that he is tender and sensitive and just a harsh word can break his little soul. It cannot tell the playground supervisors that he pumps his left fist when he runs really fast and that the sight of this is pure magic.
In order to get this number I sat in a long hallway with dirty pale blue tile lit by flickering fluorescent bulbs and waited for the woman behind the desk to take my papers. Two other mothers waited with me. The first was black and the second was white.
The first mother held her large bag close and looked up at the ceiling. Her 12-year-old son sat next to her. She had taken the day off of work and kept her son out of school so that she could sit in this hallway and eventually plead with the woman behind the desk to transfer her son to a different school.
I don’t know if the boy with her was her first born. I don’t know if he ever talked to his fingers or had an imaginary friend or liked to eat cold pizza for breakfast. But I know that this tall, shy, 12-year-old boy was this woman’s baby. And I know that he had a number too, because when his number was entered into the computer on the desk, it said he was out of options. His number said there were only two Jr High schools available to him. He had attended both. Trouble found him at both. His number was up and he was out of luck.
When the woman behind the desk (I wonder if she had a number too) gave the first mother the bad news and politely tried to send her on her way, things got interesting.
The mother basically said this answer would not do. She told the woman behind the desk, calmly at first, that if her son were to return to either of those schools he would end up dead or in jail before his 18th birthday. The desk woman pointed to the forms and numbers and said she was very sorry but there was nothing else that could be done. Louder and louder this mother pleaded and begged for her son’s life. His life.
You would have thought the firing squad was approaching. I think the mother began to cry a little. Maybe it was me who was crying. The boy looked down at his shoes.
Defeated and out of options, the mother called to her son. It was time to go. They began gathering their things.
Remember the second mother? The white mother? She was sitting next to me through this heart-breaking scene, phone in hand, texting, emailing, whatever. Like me, she had just moved to the area recently and needed a number to get her kids into the system. Unlike the black mother, she was not worried about what that number said about her children and their options. She told me that if she couldn’t get them into a good school in the city she and her husband could always move to the nearby suburbs where the schools are very good.
As the first mother, the black mother, was gathering her things, the second mother, the white mother, turned her head toward me and away from the 12-year-old boy looking at his shoes and his mother furiously stuffing papers in her bag so only I could see as she rolled her eyes and mouthed the words, “Can you believe her?”
I do not know either of these women. I spent the morning with them in a grim hallway, and we shared a brief moment, but I do not know them. I don’t know what led the first mother to desperately search out options for her son that were not available to someone with his number. I don’t know what the second mother was texting or how it came to be that she and her husband could pick up and move for better schools.
But I do know that this second mother thought that she and I shared a similar number in life and that I would be able to relate to her in a way this first mother could not. I do know that even though all three of us mothers had come to get our children seemingly innocuous numbers, and that these numbers ought to make life fair for everyone, somehow this other white mother and I had options the black mother did not.
I do know that a lot of white Christians have been uncomfortable with the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” This makes us uncomfortable because we are not black, our children are not black, and a great deal of people who matter to us are not black. Shouldn’t all lives matter equally? Shouldn’t we all take our number, stand in line and work as hard as we can to get where we are going?
But today, Ash Wednesday, when Christians around the world are marked for death and told that their days on earth are numbered and confess that we were all born into sin, sin that is bigger than any one of us, we ought to be more uncomfortable with what makes us uncomfortable about Black Lives Matter.
Perhaps we are uncomfortable saying black lives matter because we cannot imagine a world in which the lives of our white children would matter as little as the lives of black children do in our numbered system right now. We cannot fathom a system in which all our children take a number and are subjected to the same options, where there are no preferential options or moving to the suburbs, we take a number and wait in line to see how the chips will fall.
The problem with refusing to say black lives matter in the wake of so much tragedy in the black community, and opting for something like All Lives Matter, is that this is the equivalent of passing out a number and acting like it has no color, or accent, or head garb. Once everyone has a number we can wash our hands and say, “there, that’s fair” and never mind the number of black children stuck in failing schools or how little black women get paid or how many black men get shot, they are all conflated into one big number of all the school children and all the pay checks and all the victims. And when it’s all just one big number we are looking at, black lives are lost, literally.
We live in a big world where we must have numbers and administrators and women sitting behind desks but just because we need systems doesn’t mean they aren’t broken and the numbers aren’t skewed so that a tall shy 12-year-old black boy is out of options.
Black Lives Matter because we are not numbers. Because human life cannot be defined by a series of digits and a double sided questionnaire. Because this numbers business is a matter of life and death. Because God desires faithfulness even in the face of systemic sin.
Saying Black Lives Matter refuses to lump a human life with all its finger friends and fist pumping and marvelous God-given beauty into a big round number sitting on a desk somewhere. The repentance Christians seek today must take seriously the way in which the numbers in our system are skewed and broken and sinful.
That day in the hallway, I said nothing. I was afraid of upsetting anyone. So I smiled at the black mother and smiled at the white mother. I treated them as if there was no difference when there was. The difference was not that one was better than the other or that one life mattered more than the other. The difference was life and death to one of those mothers. And I just smiled.
And if you are thinking, “You shouldn’t have to apologize for what you have and what your family worked hard for” let me remind you, “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
I have so much to repent for. I have a number in this broken system and much of my comfort and prosperity depends on this system staying much the way it is. Even though I am marked for death the sin into which I was conceived drives me to preserve my life at the expense of another.
God have mercy.
Today I am praying for these two mothers and their children. I am praying for my son who has options in life that others do not and that he does not deserve. I am praying that the mercy of God will unsettle our numbered world.