Despite two white men literally hunting down a black man and murdering him in broad daylight, it took three months, four prosecutors, a leaked video, and a viral hashtag just for a chance — a chance — that Ahmaud Arbery’s family would receive a fair investigation into his death.
Earlier this year my friend (who is black) was working a package delivery job in a major Californian city. One evening as he was dropping off packages at a doorstep, a white stranger encroached on his space and accused him of stealing the very packages he was delivering.
My friend explained he was delivering the packages, only for the white stranger to escalate the situation by claiming to be the police. He was not the police. He was not even the homeowner.
Eventually the white stranger backed down — without apologizing — and my friend walked away from the encounter physically unharmed.
Though my friend’s experience that night ended differently than that of
their stories began the exact same way: a white person acting on the deeply seeded belief that they have the right to police the existence of black people.
Thankfully the stranger who lied to my friend about being the police and falsely accusing him of robbery didn’t have a gun that night. For all I know, that’s the only reason my friend’s story did not end the same way as Ahmaud Arbery’s.
I was recently introduced to a thought experiment from American philosopher John Rawls called “original position.” The concept was explained to me like this:
“Rawls argues a system is only just if you’d be willing to enter it without knowing what position you would have once inside.”
I didn’t choose to be white but I did choose to live in America, which means I have entered into a societal system that is built around preserving my comfort while requiring black people to justify their existence every day.
Given this reality, I believe my primary responsibility as a white American is to understand my whiteness. To recognize moments and patterns of the privilege I’m afforded, to actively seek non-white voices of influence, to create space for and amplify the voices of minorities around me.
But all of these actions are hollow if I don’t also acknowledge and grieve injustice.
We must acknowledge and grieve injustice because they are the first steps towards reconciliation. Without reconciliation, there is no hope for a better future.
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a German term that
“refers to embarrassment about and often remorse for Germans’ complicity in the war crimes of the Wehrmacht, Holocaust, and related events of the early and mid-20th century, including World War II.”
There is no equivalent word in the English language for processing the centuries of trauma white America has inflicted on black people because America has never formally apologized for slavery.
As long as white America chooses to believe that Abraham Lincoln eradicated mainstream racism when he freed the slaves, and that the Confederate flag is a harmless symbol of cultural heritage, and that overt racism only comes from rednecks in the rural South, and that Obama’s presidency proves racial equality, and that Ahmaud’s death is merely unfortunate, our black brothers and sisters will continue to languish and die without accountability.
This is not God’s vision for how we should live.
We get a glimpse into God’s idea of community — as he designed it to be — in the last book of the Bible. John, the author of the book, describes a vision he received of heaven:
“I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne.”
Our skin color and cultural identities are not temporal or random — I am white on earth and I will be white in heaven.
God made me white because he wanted me to be white.
God made Ahmaud black because he wanted him to be black.
God creates people differently because he believes interwoven diversity is fundamental to the best possible expression of life and being.
And yet, the American church has historically been — and predominantly continues to be — segregated. In 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. famously said,
“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.”
In the days leading up to May 8th — what would have been Ahmaud’s 26th birthday — Jason Vaughn (his high school football coach) ran 2.23 miles as a way to memorialize the date of his murder. Jason posted a video on social media with the hashtag #IRunWithMaud. At the time, no one had been detained or charged with Ahmaud’s murder.
Through gritted teeth and tears, Jason said
“I will not get tired until we get justice.”
The hashtag #IRunWithMaud began trending, with people posting videos and pictures of their own 2.23 mile run.
On May 7th — at the peak of #IRunWithMaud — two prominent American faith communities (with follower counts in the tens and hundreds of thousands) posted on Instagram.
The first community’s post:
Despite May 7th being America’s “National Day of Prayer,” there isn’t a single mention of Ahmaud Arbery. This omission is a “shameful tragedy.”
The chasm between John’s vision of God’s heart for community and Martin Luther King Jr.’s description of the American church 60 years ago is still so wide in 2020 that even our social media feeds are segregated.
Thankfully, there are churches today working to mend the fissure.
The second community’s post:
Kyle Haselden, a black author and preacher, built on MLK’s quote in a 1964 op-ed for the New York Times:
“The hope that the church will finally come to grips with the racial crisis lies in signs of sharpening awareness that the crisis threatens not only the nation’s domestic tranquillity and the Negroes’ welfare but even more imperils the soul of the church itself. The situation in this respect is similar to that of the church in Nazi Germany. It can survive as a church only by daring to challenge — at whatever danger to itself — the major evil of the day.”
Haselden explains that in order for the church to challenge evil, it requires
“Alert, committed and active young churchmen, lay and clergy, who in open rebellion against the low‐geared institutional churches detachment from the problem, are openly and sacrificially identifying themselves with oppressed and deprived Negroes.”
John’s vision of heaven isn’t a distant dream, it’s a reality we can experience today. But there’s a cost — reconciliation takes more than a hashtag.
It requires sacrifice.
Name the wrongs.
Linger in the wounds.
Acknowledge and grieve injustice.
Edit — just hours after publishing this article, from the Washington Post:“Four Minneapolis officers are fired after video shows one kneeling on neck of black man who later died, mayor says”
This post was originally published in The Valleyist, my newsletter exploring the intersection of technology and spiritual faith. You can subscribe below: