Since the release of the video depicting the tragic death of twenty-five-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed on February 23 while jogging as he often did through neighborhoods in Glynn County, Georgia, many have been mourning his passing.
But what has been even more frustrating to witness is the slow process that finally resulted in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation charging father and son Gregory, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, with murder, more than two months after Arbery’s death. Today, had he not been killed, he would have turned 26 years old.
I’ve asked black church leaders and pastors to respond to the slow process of justice in Arbery’s case and share how they wish to see the American church respond. (Note: respondents are using pseudonyms to protect their identities.)
How does Ahmaud Arbery’s unjust death and delay in prosecuting his killers affect black Christians?
Carol (church planter, author, and pastor’s wife, Nashville, TN: [We] feel enraged, disheartened, and disappointed. My timeline has been filled with cries of ‘not again’ and ‘how long O Lord?’ I lament that racial trauma has become all too familiar in our existence here in America.
David (lead pastor, Charlotte, NC): Tonight I cried in my wife’s lap as I had to have the talk with my sons again. The talk isn’t about how to treat women or how to be a man but how to avoid being killed. Each word measured and balanced, but the seriousness of the moment was not lost. I kept repeating, not to make you afraid, but aware. My 13-year-old son attempted to process it. My 18-year-old son was hearing it again. His eyes never looked away from mine. My wife listened. She allowed me the liberty to be brutally honest.
Years ago, I avoided talking to my youngest about the unarmed black man killed in Charlotte. I refused to rob him of his innocence until one day while driving to the store, a police car pulled up beside us, and he said, ‘Dad, I am scared.’ When I asked him why, he said, ‘Police kills black people.’ He was six years old when Jonathan Ferrell was killed. I gripped the steering wheel and told him that he did not have to be afraid. I lied. Jonathan Ferrell was killed walking distance from our home in East Charlotte. I thought he was too young to understand it, but his friends told him on the playground. Their parents thought it was necessary to tell their young black sons what I was afraid to tell my own. I wasn’t prepared then, but sadly I’ve gotten better over time.
Each year I’ve had the talk with them. Not the gentle reminders that parents tell their children about wearing a helmet on bicycles or wearing their seatbelts when driving. The names are too many. The images are seared in my brain, and now like many black fathers, I’ve passed the realities to my sons. Again, I tried to remain balanced by speaking of justice, the evil of men, and point them to Jesus. But it’s not easy when I try to answer the question of why this continues to happen? Now as the talk is repeated and I have become a pseudo-expert once again explaining reactions, racism, and realities, the looks on my sons’ faces hurt me to the core. How can they be judged by melanin? I spoke to them using examples of my white counterparts assuring them that we all have something; this happens to be ours. The words are empty. They know it. The names are too many. The images are seared in my brain, and now like many black fathers, I’ve passed the realities to my sons...I have become a pseudo-expert once again explaining reactions, racism, and realities. Click To Tweet
Brian (writer, Brooklyn, NY): Ahmaud’s death is another nail in the backs of black people in America. Black Christians especially have to figure out how to cope with yet another tragedy as we wrestle with the truth about the goodness of our God. It is now not a question of why evil happens but why does it keep happening to us? I wouldn’t dare presume the feelings for all black people, but I think it is safe to say that we are tired.
Ruth (children’s church director, GA): Remember how we as Americans felt on September 12, 2001? There was this collective grief and horror at having watched innocent human life taken right before our eyes. There was anger and a desire to make someone pay as we looked at our children and tried to make them feel safe, grasping for words to explain to them how something so evil could have happened. That sick feeling of powerlessness and rage is something that the black community re-lives every time we have to mourn another son or daughter like Ahmaud Arbery. We feel those parents’ pain deeply and personally—over and over and over and over again. Since Trayvon Martin, my body has developed some uncontrollable physical responses to stories like this. It is emotionally exhausting and traumatic.
What do you want white evangelicals to know with regards to this most recent example of violence against black Americans?
John (minister of Christian education, Kansas City, MS): White evangelicals love and serve the same God as African American Christians. This same God loves justice and hates injustice. This same God calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. This same God demands that our epistemology inform our ethics; to know God’s word is to do God’s word. Do my white brothers and sisters love justice and hate injustice? Do my white brothers and sisters truly love their neighbor?
June (worship leader, Kannapolis, NC): I would say to white evangelicals: my lament, my anger, my frustration, my being tired, is something you will never understand! So, don’t tell me how to feel in this moment or explain to me that you’re not racist. Allow me to process these emotions and to embody the Scriptures that say mourn with those that mourn! Don’t minimize the pain that the black Christian community experiences by seeking to provide explanations as to why it happened or what caused it to happen. Finally, if you’re choosing to be silent during these times, don’t get upset with those who chose to be loud. Allow me to process these emotions and to embody the Scriptures that say mourn with those that mourn! Don't minimize the pain that the black Christian community experiences by seeking to provide explanations as to why it happened. Click To Tweet
Ruth: I know that our family-of-faith bond is deeper than race, ethnicity, or culture, but on some days when I have to watch white Christians do this nonsense, I don’t want to see or talk to any of you. Being angry and lashing out is something I may need to do privately, but I’m learning that it rarely gets me anywhere publicly. Sometimes I need a minute, so you may have to either give me some space or get an earful. BUT—you can definitely be talking to people other than me! I need to know that while I’m wrestling to keep it together, you are brave enough to speak out in the public square and call out the injustice, and take on the failures in the dominant culture. I’m watching to see if you are pretending like nothing happened. You don’t have to take on every case, but surely to goodness one of these stories ought to move you to righteous indignation.
David: The cancer of racism isn’t just a world problem but a church one as well. When our predominantly black church merged with a white church during the Trump era, my sons witnessed me sandwiched between two worlds. They witnessed me skirt the Keith Lamont Scott issue as I attempted to bring two cultures under one umbrella. I won’t do that again. I’m tired of folks weaponizing my blackness. Tired of the church excluding racism to ‘ensure the purity of the gospel remains.’ Tired of editing posts to make sure I’m being balanced. Tired of being labeled “angry” when I’m expressing myself. Tired of waiting for justice.
Teresa (author and ministry co-founder, OH): I would tell them that they hold part responsibility because they continue to support a man in the Oval Office who is blatantly dividing America. White men, especially, are freely carrying AK-47s, walking the streets and shouting that they have permission from their president. I’ve heard these words with my own ears. If we had evangelicals following Jesus and not their heart for a Supreme Court nominee solely focusing on pro-life when it comes to abortion, we may not see some of the ugly that is taking place, which is threatening black and brown people.
How should the American church respond?
Grace (elder and Bible teacher, MD): The American church should respond by acknowledging, addressing, and preventing the racism that’s prevalent in our country. Everyone needs to check their hearts. Do their beliefs align with God’s word? Why do certain segments of the Christian church think it’s okay to kill people?
June: The American church should respond with lament! It should also utilize its voice to influence and direct culture surrounding these injustices when they occur. What it cannot do is continue to be silent and let a few voices speak for the majority; it must stand united for justice and be the Imago Dei!
John: The American church must be dutiful to learn about African American history, as African American history is world history.
The American church must publicly renounce the ideology that animates this type of behavior: white supremacy.
The American church must address this deep-rooted sickness of racism from the pulpit and in the classroom.
The American Church must develop discipleship initiatives that address racism in this country and the concomitant behavior.
The American church must lament such unjust acts against imago Dei bearers.
The American church must then launch into action, to stand for justice, and to reform social institutions like the criminal justice system and education.
The American church must love her brothers and sisters, as herself, by standing for justice.
Brian: The American church needs to take to the streets. She should be on the front lines and leveraging every bit of her power socially and politically to make something happen. When it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage, you will find Christians in the ears of politicians; why can’t they put that same energy to seeing other people made in the image of God be protected too? The worst part of this has been all of the texts and calls I’ve received from white Christians who are praying for me and feel for me. Do their hearts not break over this? Do they not feel the pain of injustice in their bones? Why is it just me? We have had enough of thoughts and prayers, it is time to put your money, time, and power where your mouth is. We have had enough of thoughts and prayers, it is time to put your money, time, and power where your mouth is. Click To Tweet