“I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban.” – Job 29:14
The killing of Ahmaud Arbery is a modern-day lynching. We even have video proof of how the twenty-five-year-old Black man was gruesomely gunned down on the streets of Brunswick, Georgia, by two white men, Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis. McMichael told investigators he thought Arbery was a burglary suspect and exercised his right to a citizen’s arrest. But footage reveals that they tackled Arbery while he was on a jog and shot him twice with a shotgun.
Their unwarranted actions point to the reality that Black men and women are not safe in this country simply because of the color of their skin. Thankfully, on Thursday, May 6, the perpetrators were arrested for the felony murder and aggravated assault of Ahmaud Arbery. Their accomplice, William Bryan, is also being charged, but has not yet been arrested.
This result speaks to the power of raised voices and an entire community of people demanding justice. I’m celebrating this moment with the Black community, knowing how often a murderer of a Black man or woman has walked free.
But the work does not stop here. I am grateful for many of my fellow Christians who prayed, mourned, and fought against this senseless evil. But Scripture requires even more from followers of Jesus. Lamenting and calling out are only the beginning. Confronting racism and unjust social structures is hard and uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what we must be willing to do. We need to stare racism in the face and boldly change the future to ensure horrors like Arbery’s killing are less likely to happen again.
1. Relinquish Power over the Narrative
Scripture tells many stories of someone being abused, assaulted, or oppressed, and justice is given by allowing their story to be heard. God has always cared about our stories; God’s commitment to narrative justice flows through the book of Judges. It tells story after story of injustice, including the assault, rape, and murder of an unnamed woman in Judges 19. It is a horrific murder much like Arbery’s, and when the people of Israel learn of it, they respond, “We must do something! So speak up!” (v. 30b, NIV).
The heinous, unjust killing of a human being demands a weighty response. But first we must listen.
If suffering isn’t personal, we can become apathetic or even antagonistic to it. How many times has a Black man or woman been killed in our country without the Church pausing to mourn their death? How many times has the Black community cried out to be heard, only to be met with replies like, “But not all white people are racist,” or “But do you really know the facts?” or “Did you know they had a criminal record?”
An entire community is suffering under the weight of grief because the loss of Botham Jean, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Treyvon Martin, Philando Castile, Terrance Franklin, De’Von Bailey, Walter Scott, and so many more are all too near. Even in Ahmaud Arbery’s case, true justice would be for him to be alive and celebrating his recent birthday
instead of being a hashtag. Yet racism has become so ingrained in our society that we are hardwired to harden our hearts when we hear about another shooting.
We need to get out of our heads and relinquish the power we have to control the narrative about Black bodies in this country. Instead of silencing the voices of the Black community, we need them to guide us. What if we asked the Black community how they are processing the death of Ahmaud Arbery? What if, instead of jumping to talk about grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we actually do the hard work of hearing their rage and their pain? What if, instead of redirecting the conversation to black-on-black crime or questioning whether race had anything to do with such tragedies, we opened our hearts, embraced their stories and trauma as our own, and learned to mourn with those who mourn?
We cannot begin to deconstruct racism in this country if we are not first going to the Black community and saying, “We must do something! So speak up!”
Internalize the voices and pleas of the Black community. Respond in ways they want us to respond. Keep saying Ahmaud Arbery’s name and care about his story. Recount the long history of abuse and victimization of Black men and women in this country.
Relinquish, listen, and remember.
READ: Three Ways Your Church Can Combat the Incarnation of ‘Race’
2. Resource Efforts Towards Justice
Part of how we take a stand against racism is also with our wallets. There is an ugly economic side to the abuse and killing of people of color. Not only does Ahmaud Arbery’s family have to navigate trauma and grief, but their pursuit of justice comes at a financial cost. Lawyers, legal fees, and grand jury processes require time and money. If we prayed for the grand jury to charge the McMichaels, we should also be willing to give resources to help the financially-stricken Arbery family.
The fight against racism has a monetary cost. Money played a role in giving justice a chance, and part of the way we seek the holistic restoration of all peoples is financially supporting them in times like these.
We find an unlikely model for resource-driven justice in Genesis 14 when Abram goes out to war on behalf of his nephew, Lot. In verses 11 and 12, four kings descend upon Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot lives. During the raid, Lot is kidnapped and his possessions stolen. Abram quickly mobilizes his resources to rescue his nephew. There is an analogical, moral interpretation here for us. In the same way that Abram stares Lot’s injustice in the face and gives of his resources, so too should we provide direct financial relief to those who have suffered injustices, especially minorities.
A GoFundMe, entitled “I Run With Maud,” has been set up to assist the Arbery family, and I encourage you to donate today.
3. Reform Our Legal System
Finally, we need to ask ourselves: what system allowed Gregory and Travis McMichael to think they could do what they did and get away with it? The answer is found in the practice of citizen’s arrest, an archaic and problematic loophole in our legal system.
Dr. Ira P. Robbins, Barnard T. Welsh scholar and professor of law and justice, explains:
Citizen’s arrest arose in medieval times as a direct result of the lack of an organized police force and practical modes of transportation to get to the scene of a crime expeditiously. Citizens had a positive duty to assist the King in seeking out suspected offenders and detaining them. However, citizen’s arrest is a doctrine whose time should have passed many decades or centuries ago. As official police forces became the norm, the need for citizen’s arrest dissipated. Yet these arrests are still authorized throughout the United States today, whether by common law or by statute.
Our law enforcement today has no need for a private person to lawfully detain another. It gives too much power to an individual and allows for possible abuse of this privilege, as in Ahmaud Arbery’s case. The practice of citizen’s arrest is vigilantism by the dominant culture, and justifies corporeal violence against people of color. This practice’s propensity for injustice demands that it be at least amended. Others, like Dr. Robbins, have called for it to be abolished altogether.
Christians need to care about the doctrine of citizen’s arrest because it is a systemic issue. We know that God cares about just systems. In fact, much of the Law (Torah) is oriented toward structuring the life of God’s people in a way that systematically improves upon the brutality of the ancient world, including a more humane treatment of the poor, foreigners, and other vulnerable populations; a more equitable use of land and resources; cities of refuge; and humane restrictions on punishments. Amidst the systemic injustice of the ancient world, God structures the life of God’s people as a witness to justice and righteousness.
We too need to care about systematically improving the lives of all our neighbors today. If the practice of citizen’s arrest allows racist white men to criminalize and harm Black bodies, then it should not be allowed to continue as is. You can begin to undo this systemic problem by picking up the phone, calling your city council members and state representatives, and having a conversation about your local laws.
Let’s continue to pray for the Arbery family. But let’s also step out boldly, stare racism in the face, and pave a safer path for every person of color who is still here.
This piece was first published on the Asian American Christian Collaborative blog.