Racism and the Myth of Scarcity
At a recent meeting of (mostly white) local clergy, we were asked whether or not our congregations would add their names to a “Black Lives Matter” banner.
“When I brought it up at church,” said another pastor, “one of our members pointed out that LGBTQ people still face a great deal of oppression in this country, too. She wanted to know where her banner was.”
And, of course, the common rejoinder to Black Lives Matter—not explicitly stated at that clergy meeting but certainly underlying many of the reasons given by churches who declined to have their names on the banner—“All lives matter.”
None of the pastors in the group are overtly racist. None of them said their churches were not signing on to the banner because they think black people are inferior or they want to go back to the days of Jim Crow. The churches represented by these pastors are not filled with neo-Nazis and KKK members.
So I’ve been contemplating my colleagues’ responses to this request to sign on to the BLM banner. I’ve been wondering how a movement described by Eboni Marshall Turman of Duke Divinity School as “the Jesus event of the 21st Century” has come under such suspicion from “progressive” white Christians.
There are plenty of reasons, I suppose—reasons connected to white power and privilege, to racial ignorance and fear. I won’t deny the myriad economic, sociological, and psychological dysfunctions at work in white critique of BLM. But as a pastor, I’m most interested in the theological roots of white suspicion, which I think is connected to a belief in what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the “myth of scarcity.”
In the story of the Exodus, argues Brueggemann, Pharaoh is convinced that there is not enough—not enough money, not enough power, not enough food—to go around. It is this fear of scarcity that causes him, with the administrative help of Joseph, to hoard food in the first place, and then to use the hoarded food to exploit the Israelite people during the famine. In order to access the food Pharaoh has stored up in his silos, the people give up their money, and then their land, and finally their freedom.
When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, they again face the specter of scarcity as they wander the desert. But the economic system established by God in the wilderness differs vastly from the market economy created by Pharaoh in Egypt. God does not ask for money or land or lives in exchange for food. The food—in the form of manna and quail—simply appears on the ground each morning and evening. The people are allowed to take the food freely. The only catch is that they cannot take more than they need. Any food they tried to hoard “bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20).
Jesus reenacts this wilderness miracle when he feeds the hungry crowds on the mountainside. The disciples insist that five loaves and two fish are not enough to feed the thousands who have gathered, but Jesus says to pass around the food anyway, and in the end everyone has enough. Over and over again, the biblical story shows how the human belief in scarcity is confounded by the reality of Divine abundance.
The death-dealing effects of the myth of scarcity—in the stories of scripture and in our lived experiences—are starkly evident when we consider economic systems and other concrete realities. Overwhelming problems such as human poverty and environmental degradation are directly grounded in our fear that there is not enough stuff to go around—not enough money, not enough resources. So those of us who can hoard stuff for ourselves do—because you never know when famine will strike.
But it’s not just food and crude oil and money we fear are in short supply. The comments I have heard about the Black Lives Matter movement convince me that our fear of scarcity goes well beyond concrete things. We also fear that there is not really enough of intangible things—things that we desperately want but find difficult to grab and hoard. Things like respect, status, energy, attention, dignity…
In listening to well-meaning liberals question and criticize BLM, I keep bumping up against this idea that if we are specifically for one group of people, we must be against other groups of people. Because there is just not enough for-ness to go around. If we are for Black Lives Matter, we must be against the idea that all lives matter. If we are for dismantling racism, we must be against dismantling homophobia and patriarchy. If we are for victims of police brutality, we must be against the police.
These lies, I believe, are born out of the myth of scarcity—a myth to which we are all susceptible. The reality, of course, is that we can be specifically for one group of people without being against others. The struggle for the rights and dignity of black people in the United States is necessary for the movement toward the rights and dignity of all people. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is to name those who should be, but are not yet, included in our national belief that all lives really do matter.
The founders of the BLM movement—Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors—identify as queer black women. The BLM movement is a strong voice for LGBTQ justice. Their insistence that Black Lives Matter in no way suggests that queer lives don’t matter, that women’s lives don’t matter, that any other lives don’t matter. Demanding respect for the lives of people in a particular group does not diminish the respect afforded to people in a different group—or people (which is most of us) whose identities overlap multiple groups. There is enough respect—an abundance of respect—to go around.
It is the lie of scarcity that suggests that offering respect to one group diminishes the respect of another. It is the same lie of scarcity that says being pro-BLM means you must be anti-police. In reality, being anti-police brutality is being pro-police doing their jobs well. Holding abusive police officers accountable is supporting those police who work hard for more just communities. Affirming the worth of black people makes all communities more prosperous and safe, which will ultimately save the lives of police and community members alike.
The myth of scarcity is deeply engrained in our spirits and is at the root of much human sin, including the sin of racism—whether overt or covert. As an alternative to this myth of scarcity, Brueggemann suggests a “liturgy of abundance”—a realization and proclamation that this world contains enough for us all. Enough food and shelter and natural resources; enough respect and attention and dignity. This liturgy of abundance assures us that we don’t have to parcel out what and who we will be for and against; we can be for all good things and all people in this world.
It is hard to live out the liturgy of abundance in a culture obsessed with scarcity. But if we are going to believe in abundance, spring is the time to do it. When the birdsong drowns out the traffic noise, and a strong breeze brings a rain of pink and white petals, and yellow daffodil clumps pop up in even the sparsest yards.
If we are going to believe in abundance, Easter is the time to do it. When we celebrate the story of courage overcoming fear, of love overcoming hate, of life swallowing up death forever.
If we are going to believe in abundance, now is the time to do it. When we can add our voices to those proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, to those insisting that people valued least in society be granted the dignity they deserve, to those who understand that there is enough of everything good to go around.
 Turman, Eboni Marshall. “Seven Writers Assess the Movement: Black Lives Matter.” Christian Century. March 16, 2016.
 Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity.” Christian Century. March 24-31, 1999, (Bruegemann explores this concept in many of his other writings as well.)