The heartbreaking story of Ahmaud Arbery broke over the nation recently, with millions seeing a video of him being shot by two white men in February. These men, father and son Greg and Travis McDaniel, claimed that Arbery looked like someone who had been caught burglaring on home security video. They saw him running through their neighborhood, armed themselves, chased him down, and when he tried to defend himself, they shot him and killed him in the middle of the street. The video is sickening, as Arbery stumbles and collapses, breathing his last.
A wave of outrage and lament has broken out across social media, and the shooters have finally been arrested. Among the many voices of lament, a few have raised a fairly standard list of questions, “Why is this such a huge deal?” “Why don’t we lament the killing or murder of every person, white or black?” “How you do know this was racism and not merely self-defense?”
Here I want to speak to those who may have such questions, who have a similar story to mine. I am white, I am a conservative, and I am a Christian. Let me explain to you why white, conservative Christians passionate for a united church should lament the murder of Ahmaud Arbery as particularly tragic.
Some see this as a political issue, but it is not a political issue. This is a theological issue. This is a biblical issue. The Bible teaches that all humanity is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–28), therefore every human is personally, individually, equally, and uniquely valued, bearing the dignity of the image of eternal God. When Christ came, he came to reconcile a new humanity to himself. He didn’t come to save individuals alone, but to reunite a people to God and to each other across lines of ethnic and socio-economic hostility (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11–22). We are one body, whether Jew or Greek, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, and when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer (1 Corinthians 12). If one part of the church suffers, the whole church suffers.
Unlike seemingly random violence or other tragic deaths, the murder of a black man in the American South by armed white men carries centuries of American history with it. For the majority of American history (from the early 1600s until 1863), black people were legally enslaved. For another century after that (until the Civil Rights movement), black people were directly, intentionally, and systemically marginalized by Jim Crow laws, racist people and structures, and a system that had barely moved beyond the evils of the slave system. Every time a black men is killed, it carries this history into the present.
You might think that shouldn’t be the case. You might think that this is 2020 and that history is just that — history. But imagine you were a 40-year-old person who had been imprisoned and abused in that prison until you were 25; then from age 25-35 you were freed, but lived a life of poverty and barely made ends meet. Then at age 35, you started getting a little traction, but still suffered setback after setback. An incident at age 40 would raise all of the pain of your past. It wouldn’t be ancient history to you. It would feel very much like your present experience.
As a white, conservative Christian man, I grew up without any experience of what a black man experiences in America. In fact, it wasn’t until I was called to pastor a church in a majority black community that I began to hear from people I loved and trusted what that experience was like. I soon began to realize that virtually every black man I know has, due to his blackness, experienced difficulties beyond my experience. He is part of a long lineage of those who have been questioned by police without really knowing why, of being treated like a suspect when he has done nothing wrong, of being afraid for himself and his sons of going to the wrong place at the wrong time and never coming home. You, a white, conservative Christian like me, might have no category for that. You might say, “That’s ridiculous.” But I would challenge you to ask a few of your black friends to be honest with you. You might be surprised about what you hear. And if you don’t have black friends, I would encourage you not to claim that you understand the experiences of those you, literally, don’t know.
In love for my black brothers and sisters, I have chosen to believe it when they tell me what it’s like for them to be black in our society. I can’t pretend to understand. I can’t pretend to experience it. I can’t act like I really “get it.” But I can choose to let love dictate that I will “believe all things.” I can choose humility, to believe that my own experience is not the only or even the normal experience. I can listen when my black brothers and sisters say that the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery surfaces all sorts of trauma and fear. I can believe my black brothers when they tell me that they feel like a target and in danger in rural Georgia, or a “quiet,” white suburb of Anytown, USA.
Love believes all things, and I love my black brothers and sisters enough to believe them more than the talking heads, political operators, or even my own instincts.
White, conservative Christian (here I’m talking to myself!), do your research on the history and listen to the experiences of your black brothers and sisters. This doesn’t negate the pain that others feel, but it does help explain why black pain is a unique pain. Love your brothers and sisters enough to ask them, and to believe their answers.
And if you don’t have any real black friends, you should start to engage and grow into real friendships with a diverse group of people, in a diverse congregation. That’s my desire for the church I pastor, and for Church United here in South Florida – to be individually and collectively a reflection of the unity in diversity of the
Church gathered around the throne of Jesus:
“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
This month’s article comes from Rev. Dr. Danny Slavich who serves as the Lead Pastor of Cross United Church in Lighthouse Point. Danny and his church are proud members of the Church United network in South Florida.