Truth be told, I do not know exactly what to write or how to write it. But I feel compelled to write…
As I process a story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.
I refer to the story of the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, during what, for Ahmaud, was a Sunday afternoon jog in a neighborhood that should have felt like safe and familiar territory to him.
The shooting took place on February 23rd, 2 ½ months ago. I am processing the story now only because of the recent emergence of a video that has placed Ahmaud’s shooting starkly and graphically in our country’s consciousness.
“We don’t know all the details,” some will be quick to declare. But we know enough to be reminded of this inescapable truth: It is not the same America for Ahmaud Arbery as it is for the men who had both the agency and falsely-perceived justification to arm themselves and confront him. The shooters and the victim lived in the same geographical vicinity. But, in terms of their standing in a nation that is still plagued and driven by systemic racism, Ahmaud and the men who pursued and shot him were light years apart.
I hear it from so many of my white colleagues, even in the church: “Enough with the racism talk! It’s only an issue because you are making it one!” Some are inclined to make their rejection of the conversation even more pointed: “There is no such thing as ‘white privilege.’ It is nothing but an artificial social construct designed to perpetuate a liberal agenda and to manipulate the conversation.” I have heard such sentiments. I suspect you have as well.
But the tragic story of Ahmaud Arbery reminds us of how wrongheaded and dangerous such sentiments are. The moment I am tempted to believe that systemic racism no longer exists or that white privilege is not a reality, I simply have to spend a moment telling myself this truth: That, as a white male, I could travel to any suburban American neighborhood right now, park my car, even put on a mask (given the COVID-19 dynamics), and take a leisurely jog without giving a single thought to either my wellbeing or the possibility of being presumed guilty of a crime. If that is not a societal privileging based upon whiteness, what else could we possibly call it? To ignore or deny such privileging’s continued impact upon the moral dynamics of our nation compromises and even corrupts the integrity of our nation’s very identity.
The story of Ahmaud Arbery brings all of these things and many others into quick and unnerving focus. It is a story not to be minimized, not only because of the depth of its tragedy, but also because of the urgency of what it illuminates.
As I write these words, I am keenly aware of the fact that I write them from a place of privilege. All that I have to worry about is the possibility of being misunderstood or mischaracterized or tuned-out or resented, none of which is life-threatening or even remotely risky. But I want this privileged voice to speak about the stories that matter most, and the story of Ahmaud Arbery is one of those stories.
It is a story that matters to his family and friends.
It is a story that matters to a nation still burdened by the weight of a racism that produces such a story.
It is a story that matters to faith communities, including the Church, where narratives about justice and the sacred worth of all people must frame Ahmaud’s shooting as an agonizing affront to any theological worldview grounded in Truth.
It is a story that matters to the broken heart of this writer, who, while not always knowing how to write or how to speak, longs for his inadequate words to be interpreted as both an outcry against the injustice that Ahmaud experienced and a call for a shared recommitment to the dismantling of the systemic racism that makes such injustice all too common.
I will say it once more—As I process this story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.