Widespread protests in response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, and in response to this country’s long and bloody history of racism and racial injustice, are the backdrop to another painful reality: There is a value gap in the United States of America.
Coined by Eddie Glaude Jr., the value gap is understood as the general assumption that in America white people are valued more than black people. According to a friend and former colleague who recently reminded me of this concept, the value gap is formed by the “differences and dissonances” that exist between the moral, social, political and religious values of groups.
The value gap is inherent in the contrasting statements of “black lives matter” and “all lives matter.” The value gap is apparent in the nation’s swift, collective reaction to the destruction of property compared to the malingered response to the death of innocent black lives. Likewise, the value gap is clearly evident in the dissonance caused by a nation’s attempt to whitewash its own fetish of violence – its own history of murder and destruction of indigenous people and indigenous land, the theft and looting of Africans from their homeland to build the country’s economy and infrastructure, the centuries of policy violence that has stripped and denied constitutional rights to black and brown communities which has precipitated the actions of looting and riots.
“Christians today must be challenged to ignore the values of the present system in order to boldly respond to the emergency of the present moment.”
The value gap is found in the differences and dissonances between what are deemed “appropriate” versus “inappropriate” forms of resistance between the races of black and white people coexisting in a society built on the bedrock of racism and white supremacy.
In his book, The Spirituals & the Blues, the late theologian James Cone identifies the value gap when articulating the efforts of enslaved Africans to claim their dignity and personhood in the antebellum United States. Cone writes that “the most common [form of slave resistance] was to take the risk of fleeing to ‘free’ territory….” However, those who could not escape and knew themselves to be trapped by a system of oppression and dehumanization “‘protested by shirking their duties, injuring the crops, feigning illness and disrupting the routine.’ This has been called the ‘day-to-day resistance to slavery.’ Theft and arson were common also.”
Cone argues that the “prevalence of flight, theft, arson, and other forms of resistance meant that the slave and master did not share the same ethical perspective. Owners thought that ‘good’ slaves were those who were obedient and diligent in the master’s interests, while the ‘bad’ ones stole, malingered, or ran away.”
“Black people,” he concludes, “rejected these definitions of good and bad, though they did not reject law and morality. Rather they formulated a new law and a new morality that reflected the requirements of black existence. Right and wrong were determined by survival needs…. To be right meant doing whatever was necessary to stay alive with dignity.”
What the eruption of protests – and subsequent riots – across the nation shows is that for too long black bodies have been harmed and victimized by the past and present values of white supremacy.
Black bodies have been victimized by the value gap that has gerrymandered voting districts, denied our voting rights, defunded our public schools, poisoned our water, polluted our neighborhoods, restricted our access to healthy food, militarized the police in our communities. Likewise, black bodies have been victimized by the value gap that has assassinated our leaders, decried our attempts at peaceful protests, delegitimized our humanity, and for 400 years has pressed its knee on the throat of a people trying to breathe the nation’s promise of life and liberty for all people.
“We need a paradigm shift so that the value placed on property can no longer be set on par with the God-given value of life.”
Where the values of this nation continue to harm and dehumanize black existence, black people must resist and formulate a new morality that responds to the needs of black existence. Similarly, it is incumbent on the Church to join the resistance and draw out “new theology” from a well of new morality that foregrounds liberation, survival and dignity for black bodies – by any means necessary – as an essential value of Christian belief.
We need a paradigm shift so that the value placed on property can no longer be set on par with the God-given value of life. This is the gospel of Jesus when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13). Likewise, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, Christians today must be challenged to ignore the values of the present system in order to boldly respond to the emergency of the present moment.
Then, and only then, can we expect to see the creation of new reality where black lives are finally valued equally with white lives. Dismantling the value gap can accept nothing less.
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