White Christian outrage at the callous murder of Ahmaud Arbery is about 200 years too late. But there is at least a chance that this is truly a case of better late than never.
If you have watched the video and are not outraged at Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, you may want to go to the doctor or call for a telemed appointment. Because something is wrong.
While some will continue to excuse this as a “justifiable” homicide, many (and hopefully most) people are clamoring for action to bring the murderers to justice. As well we should. Minus an outcry from the Arbery family, the Brunswick community, and social media, this case might well have turned into another whitewashed murder of a black person.
While there remains a long and pothole-filled road to travel, murder charges thankfully went on file May 7, 2020. And people cheered—for the most part. Some also went on the defensive, as this pastor (not identified) did in a tweet.
A white pastor’s defensive outrage seems a lot more like standing near the vulnerable rather than with them. Certainly, not all white southerners or white Christians act like these men did. But the painful reality is that we—and that means all of us—handed the “broad brush” to the victim and his family, as well as those who support them.
If they choose to paint with it, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Until we acknowledge that reality, we will continue to be guilty of failing to stop the inexcusable violence that is disproportionately visited on people of color. This guilt runs from the border with Mexico to coastal Georgia to Charleston, and all around these United States. And as they have for centuries, white Christians—particularly in the South—often remain silent.
I am glad that many white people, including Southerners and Christians, are crying out for justice. But let us not take any offense or bring any self-righteous indignation to the table if we are called out for being way too late to the party.
As Dr. King said 57 years ago, “…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Just because we are speaking out this time does not excuse the wealth of history to the contrary. Our silence is the “lukewarm acceptance” that allows the status quo to exist—and I am guilty of being both absent and silent.
Where were we for Trayvon Martin, a young black man killed by a rent-a-cop for wearing a hoodie in a neighborhood?
Where were we for Tamir Rice, gunned down for playing with a BB gun?
Where were we for Walter Scott? Or Philando Castile? Or any other of the African Americans killed for charges as simple as failure to signal?
Where were we when the Charleston 9 were gunned down, and many white Southern Christians seemed far more upset over the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House than they were about the murders?
Where were we for James Byrd?
Where were we for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair?
Where were we for Emmett Till?
Now we can add Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to the list–unnecessary violence that took the lives of African Americans since I started writing this piece.
Shaking our head and saying, “How sad!” when we read these histories will hardly justify our desire to erase the past.
Where were we for the 4000+ African Americans who were lynched following the Civil War?
For that matter, where were we for those who demanded their freedom after that war? Did we support their God-given humanity, or support a whitewashed and bastardized Gospel intended to keep people “in their place?”
Do we speak out on behalf of love and justice for all humanity, or do we excuse ourselves by saying, “Hey, I didn’t do that stuff!”?
I never took a bite out of a piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden after God told me not to, but it is for sure that this action has eternally impacted the course of my life. “Not me!” is not a legitimate justification before God.
Until we get ready to own our baggage, to acknowledge our history rather than cover it, and confess our complicity rather than issuing outraged denials, we will continue to be painted with the “broad brush.” Until Christians and pastors become more concerned about calling out our original sin in the south, we will continue to be haunted by the images of Ahmaud Arbery and thousands of others.
I have failed all too often in this task. I have chosen the security of a job and a good salary over the challenge to speak truth to power. But it does not have to stay this way. The power of Christ and the Holy Spirit means that we can speak out in genuine faith. We can confess. We can change. And yes, we can be saved—from the sins we acknowledge as well as those we have too long ignored.
Perhaps–just maybe–the outcry concerning the horrific killing Ahmaud Arbery now offers a measure of hope. While people of color have every justifiable reason to doubt this, I still cling to this possibility amid the present despair.
Perhaps this is the turning point, the moment that we recognize the horrible and egregious existence of institutionalized and ingrained racism that persists in this country.
While not foolish enough to view this as the end of racism, I am hopeful about the number of people who are outraged by this event. I am hopeful that more people will recognize the ongoing toll of racism, embedded within this nation. I am hopeful that more people will recognize their own complicity and innate advantage that they gain from being white in a nation where white still equals right in many sectors.
All white people do not directly act on racist tendencies or visit their deep-seated feelings upon people of color. But we have all benefited from the historically racist foundations of our nation. White people had education, opportunity, economic advantage, and security that has yet to be afforded to people of color. Looking deep within ourselves and recognizing that undeniable reality is not the key to changing black people. It is the key to changing ourselves—and thus ending the historical reality that we inherit.
No awareness is more critical than self-awareness. My prayer is that Ahmaud Arbery’s tragic murder will bring more people to their knees, to open our hearts to our sins of both omission and commission. It is not enough to declare ourselves not directly guilty of racism. We are required by the Living Christ and the scriptures to declare our own complicity, while loudly acting against the continuation of racism.
We can change the world in many ways if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to be changed within ourselves. It is not fun, it is not easy, and it can evoke angry, pained reactions as we face the realities in which we live. Yet it is absolutely essential if we are going to be changed. And certainly if we are going to change the world.
If we do not make those changes, then we can expect more Ahmaud Arbery cases added to a list that is already far too long. Facing the demons of our noteworthy silence and our racist history is essential to shifting the narrative ever so slightly towards justice.
If a few more people are willing to do that, then perhaps Ahmaud Arbery’s senseless lynching will find some measure of purpose. His life and his memory may shine a terrible and necessary light on the truth of our present reality.