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Hillary and ‘Black Lives Matter’: The nature of change

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa, August 14, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

A video was released Monday night showing an, at times, tense dialogue between Hillary Clinton and five activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. The activists had planned on disrupting Clinton’s event on August 11th in New Hampshire, as members of the movement had done on previous occasions with presidential candidates like Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, but arrived after the room had reached capacity and were not allowed in. However Clinton agreed to meet with them afterwards.

Their conversation began with Julius Jones, the founder of the Black Lives Matter chapter in Worcester, Mass., recounting America’s history of violence towards black people. His narrative ended with Bill Clinton’s 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, a bill that has since been blamed for increasing the number of minorities in prison. Jones acknowledged that the mass incarcerations that resulted could have been an unintended consequence, a conclusion that Hillary affirmed, before asking how that knowledge of unintended consequences has changed her beliefs about the bill.

Clinton’s response was, in many ways, what you might expect from a politician and of a similar tenor to what most of the candidates likely would have offered. She began by discussing her advocacy for minority children and her desire for greater equality before shifting towards practical questions of what can be done about these issues. She stated that the next question the movement’s leaders had to answer from “people who are on the sidelines, which is the vast majority of Americans, is ‘So, what do you want me to do about it?'” Clinton would go on to say that acknowledgement without action would ultimately fall short of the needed goal yet was inevitable unless changes were made.

After a tense exchange, Jones accused Clinton of “victim blaming” for telling him that, as he interpreted it, the Black Lives Matter movement needs to find a way “to change white hearts.” To that accusation, Clinton quickly responded “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not gonna change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day we can do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them to live up to their own God-given potential.”

It was, perhaps, a surprisingly candid answer and one that came so readily that it seems to express her genuine beliefs. I am not writing to endorse or condemn Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. However, I found her statement on our inability to change actions by changing hearts interesting for a number of reasons and that is what I would like to reflect on today.

To begin, her belief that rhetoric alone cannot change enough hearts to result in the kind of social adjustments needed for lasting change is both refreshing and challenging. In talking with Jones and the others, she compared their movement to the civil rights and feminist movements of the 60’s and 70’s as well as that of the LGBT movement in more recent years. Her point was that their rhetoric was accompanied by a plan of action and that, without such a plan, lasting change would not have been possible.  

Second, because she does not place her hope in the power of rhetoric alone, she argues that new policies and laws are the most effective means of bringing about real change. There is logic to her claim but also a sense of defeatism masked as realism. It’s the idea that the problem of racism is ultimately insolvable and so the best solution is to pass enough legislation to make it as untenable as possible. Perhaps she hopes that as it becomes less and less advantageous to harbor such feelings, they will eventually fade out of existence.

As Christians, it can be easy for us to view sharing the gospel in a similar light. First, it takes more than rhetoric. While the message of the gospel is powerful and the idea that God sent his only son to die for our sins is moving, it’s not enough by itself to change hearts. If our lives do not speak to the truth of that message, then it becomes easy to ignore. That’s why it’s so important that we preach the gospel not only in words but in action. People need to see the truth of God’s love in us and in the way we relate to others if they are going to believe it for their own lives. Our words must be justified by our actions.

Secondly, and most importantly, our hope for change does not rest with us. It is neither our words nor our actions that lead people to salvation. That takes God at work in the lives of the lost through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (John 6:44). He and he alone can lead people to salvation. However, God has chosen to use us to help him accomplish that end by sharing the gospel message through both our words and our actions. It is the highest purpose we might have in this life and it is one that he has given to each of us.

Our hope for real and lasting change is not found in governments, courts, or public opinion. Rather, it is found in our heavenly Father and his message of love and grace to our fallen world. He has called you to be the embodiment of that message to everyone you meet today. Will you be?