Activist Michelle Higgins explains “Why Black Lives Matter” at Unlearn event

The activist must face the cost of standing up for justice. One UnLearn 365 speaker, Michelle Higgins, knows this intimately.

As frank as UnLearn 365 is, one of the most straightforward questions asked was, “Why do black lives matter?” At her session titled “Why Black Lives Matter,” Michelle Higgins answered point-blank. St. Louis–based worship leader and #BlackLivesMatter activist, Higgins was scheduled to speak in the Meeter Lecture Center Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 12, but was moved to the CFAC Recital Hall to accommodate a full house and the big screen. Higgins called in via Skype and began by sharing why she was unable to attend in person. At the airport, she had been detained on suspicion of being a terrorist carrying a biological weapon. Although she worked to remain civil to the officials, she made clear that being an activist, much like an Old Testament prophet, has a cost. Yet, no matter the cost, she said, the work is important.

The work Higgins referred to is the fight for racial justice. As she began her talk, she directly answered the question on every mind: Black lives matter because every life matters to God. And every life should matter to us. However, she cautioned us against replacing #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter. It is clear that in our nation, she explained, we don’t treat all lives as equal. Skin color has morphed from being a descriptor to a determiner of value. “God made me a black person!” she exclaimed.

We live in fear, Higgins said, and because of our fear, we dehumanize others. Instead of following God’s mandate to subdue the earth, we subdue each other. This pattern of domination is directly opposed to the Gospel.

Offering a solution, Higgins distinguished between activism aimed solely at human flourishing and Gospel-informed activism. The Gospel is a message of hope that addresses the body, mind and soul.

When asked what is wrong with the American church, she used the phrase “rugged individualism.” We each like our own personal security and aren’t willing to love others if it means stepping out of our comfort zones. We would rather be suspicious of stereotyped groups than vulnerably love them. Higgins referred to this as “sacrificing black bodies to our paranoia.” As counter-cultural as it is, she said we must be willing to engage both those who are thankful for our work and those who fight against us. Using very biblical language, Higgins frequently pointed back to Christ’s radical commands to love, no matter the cost.

The facilitator asked Higgins how her work as a worship pastor connects to her work as an activist. In response, she explained how worship disarms us of our fears and allows us to pay the cost of love. Coming to a place of worship forces us to let go of the control we think we have. Sometimes, she said, we are so “constipated” on ourselves we need a Gospel that is like prune baby food. Liberated from fear, we are equipped to testify.

Near the end of her talk, in the midst of technical difficulties with Skype, Higgins was able to answer some questions from the audience. Students were genuinely interested in how to practically engage with this issue.

Higgins offered talking points and tips on how to engage in an emotionally-charged Thanksgiving dinner conversations with family and how white people can humbly enter as allies. Our job as Christ-followers, she said, is not to argue our point, but first to die to our own paranoia and then help those around us do the same. Only after we undergo self-purification can we lovingly approach others. It all starts with “un-constipating” ourselves of arrogance and fear — thankfully the Gospel is like prunes.