In the wake of what many have rightly called the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Georgia, I have turned again to the Apostle Paul’s assurance that sometimes the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26-27). With a disoriented and weary soul, I am compelled in light of this latest example of racism and the danger of #runningwhileblack to confront my white brothers and sisters.
Although I understand and continue to experience the Lord’s wondrous capacity to swap ashes for beauty (Isaiah 61:1-3), I am livid with how black people are treated in this country. Once more, it is disconcerting to know that people would dare sully Jesus’ name by trying to align their misdeeds or the misdeeds of others with the Gospel. God never co-signs hate. Never has and never will.
“In moments like this it becomes grotesquely obvious that many of my white sisters and brothers don’t understand whiteness.”
Billie Holiday’s famous 1939 intonation that “Southern trees bear a strange fruit” still resonates among those with ears to hear and eyes to see. Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down in broad daylight by a white father and son who according to news reports have insisted they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest. It pains me to acknowledge yet again that this brand of racial violence in America is as old as the day is long.
White Christians, perhaps due in part to an obsessive and fast-paced culture of the privileged, have favored convenient, woeful forgetfulness. Many choose to stick their heads in the sand altogether, opting to remain ill-informed about the past and present, in hopes of achieving an artificial peace.
But there is a better way. White brothers and sisters, it is past time to learn about the Red Summer of 1919, Black Wall Street and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, and what happened in 1923 in the small town of Rosewood, Florida. It is past time to take sobering stock of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s killing in 1955 and that of 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. more than four decades later, if only to realize that these abuses were not – and are not – moral anomalies. Digesting the raw, visual revulsion of an uncivilized, unrepentant society in James Allen’s book, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, would be another step toward remembering the desolation sin causes. Ignorance is far from being blissful, and it is nothing like the God we worship.
Contrary to what a warped, do-gooder mentality asserts, racism is not an abstract superiority complex that exists way out there in some yonder, distant domain. No, racism has legs and it travels well, from home to home. It is as personal as it is political, birthed and institutionalized within individuals and then dispersed through webs of deceit, exploitation and lawlessness.
Tragically, Ahmaud Arbery’s murder is merely the latest testimony to racial hatred and violence to capture the attention of national news media and, with few exceptions, only after a video of the killing surfaced. There are others, often too many to stay abreast of.
It does not flummox me as it once did that so many white people struggle to comprehend, let alone address, racism’s rank vicissitudes because that is what racism and its corresponding socioeconomic privileges do. You benefit while others suffer based on a power structure meant, functionally, to enslave others and provide ironclad dominance and autonomy to yourself and people like you. And these dynamics are so entrenched in your psyche and lifestyle that empathy becomes fleeting, if not impossible.
Say what you will, but in our highly color-coded society, racism is infinitely more destructive than any virus, hurricane or war.
“Be willing to say and do hard things, big and small.”
I know this is hard for many enlightened and well-meaning Christians to hear, but here’s the truth: If you are white, you have no clue as to the PTSD-like realities black people in this country face every single day. Legitimate fears about whether today you will face a police officer whose bad day or bad values, or both, will cost you severely. Constant calculations about whether you are being profiled while shopping in a store, held to an inequitable standard in the workplace unlike your white colleagues and friends, or being mistreated in countless other ways, whether overt or subtle, because of your race. And there are, of course, those incidents that leave no doubt that you have been victimized by racial prejudice.
All of this, and so much more, is beyond demeaning and draining. It is debilitating. Comparatively, white people do not have to worry about their loved ones being maligned, even unto death, due to some clash with homegrown bigotry that has reared its ugly face. You get the benefit of the doubt for that which you have not earned while for us, no matter what we have earned, we are likely to be viewed with suspicion and malice simply because we are not white.
In moments like this it becomes grotesquely obvious that many of my white sisters and brothers don’t understand whiteness. In his essay in Can “White” People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission, scholar and pastor Andrew T. Draper explains, rightly referencing the pioneering work of W.E.B. Du Bois, that white people are not the issue; rather whiteness is, which is to be understood as an idolatrous system of embedded norms intricately arranged to prefer, esteem and profit white people by any means necessary.
If, in Christ, we are to operate down here according to heavenly marching orders from God, who is no respecter of color, coinage or class, then this is what I, and I think many black Christians, are looking for from white Christians: renunciation. And only the genuine kind that includes a pledge to consistent advocacy and action for racial justice.
To be clear, I do not desire your tears, pity, lip service or guilt. Renunciation, however, is something else. It is only possible insomuch as we humble ourselves under the Holy Spirit, who resides in all who believe in and confess Jesus as Lord. Right theology and right living, as defined in the Bible, is the fruit we all are called – and held accountable – to cultivate.
Yes, you are incapable of singlehandedly extinguishing racism and all her minions. We know that. You can, however, take a good, long, hard look in the mirror and take steps toward greater maturity in Christ, which for the long haul will impact those within your sphere of influence. I encourage you to take a cue from James 1:19-21 to uphold a listening posture while resolutely shunning wickedness wherever you encounter it, in what you have done or left undone, or in what has been done to you or others. Make a conscious decision to acknowledge, faithfully steward and where appropriate dismantle your racial privilege.
“If you are white, you have no clue as to the PTSD-like realities black people in this country face every single day.”
Also, accept responsibility for educating yourself. What are you reading about race in America? To name but four, Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Bryan Loritts, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery by Stephen R. Haynes, Oneness Embraced: Reconciliation, the Kingdom, and How We are Stronger Together by Tony Evans and Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism by Allan Boesak and Curtiss Paul DeYoung are as good a place as any to begin prayerful self-examination.
In a fifth book I would add to this beginning list, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Jemar Tisby writes that “the longer arc of American history reveals that Christian complicity with racism does not always require specific acts of bigotry. Being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.” Be willing to say and do hard things, big and small.
My Bible tells me that I hold intrinsic, essential value, as do you, having been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, Psalm 139:14, Ephesians 2:10) and bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). We are equals. Black people are not lesser, disposable “things” meant to serve you. We do not exist to put you at ease or to massage your unaddressed naiveté, hurts or biases.
Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today, free to go for a run through the neighborhood without hesitation or fear. The ugly truth is that he is not because of this country’s original sin of racism. It is a shameful stain in the case file of humanity that should be addressed with all deliberate speed and in the power of God who “is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19).
Josh Kelley’s “Busy Making Memories” is a delightful song, the kind prone to activate the tear ducts. Black people in America, however, are not able to make such sweet family memories as freely as our white counterparts on account of racist actions that continue to rob us of full lives. But Scripture is clear: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
More opinion on this topic:
Paul Robeson Ford | Ahmaud Arbery and a pandemic of injustice