If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:46-48 (NIV)
Maybe you’ve heard about the death of Ahmaud Arbery. I have to admit that I missed it for a while. A video of the incident went viral this week, though, and it’s been hard to miss. And I want to make sure my white friends don’t continue to miss it like I did.
In February, Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in Brunswick, a small town in south Georgia. Ahmaud didn’t die in a shootout with police, or a drug deal gone wrong, or even as an innocent bystander in a gang killing. When young black men die in those circumstances, it’s easy to put an asterisk by their deaths in our heads — something along the lines of “well, they were asking for it.” There are lots of problems with that, but one of them is that it breeds a jaded disregard for the shooting deaths of young men of color in general. And, in some circumstances, creates the deaths of other young men of color.
That’s what happened in this case. Ahmaud was 25, not much older than my son. It’s pretty unlikely, though, that my son would have been killed for jogging through a neighborhood on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
The men who killed him, Gregory and Tracis McMichael, saw Ahmaud running through their subdivision and apparently thought he matched the description of a man who had been breaking into houses in the neighborhood — at least to the extent that he was black. That was enough to compel McMichael and his son, Travis, to grab a .357 Magnum and a shotgun and chase after Ahmaud in their pickup, intending to make a citizen’s arrest. That, by the way, is legal in Georgia. Two armed men can legally chase down another man in the state of Georgia — if the offense was committed in their presence or within their immediate knowledge.
The problem with that, of course, is that Ahmad committed no offense, other than being a young man of color jogging through a neighborhood — a neighborhood where he had jogged before and was known. Had he been white, it almost certainly would have been assumed he was jogging. He would have received the benefit of the doubt.
A video shows the McMichaels and Arberry meet on the street. While Gregory is standing in the bed of his pickup, Travis and Ahmaud fight for control of Travis’ shotgun. Shots are fired. Ahmaud starts to run away, then staggers and falls to the ground. Travis turns him over to see if he was carrying a gun.
Ahmaud did not have a weapon. At no time in the video does he pull a gun or a knife. He does seem to initiate the altercation, but only after he apparently turned and jogged away from the McMichaels when they blocked his path at another location.
I know, it’s tempting to say things like, “We don’t know it was about race.” I don’t know the McMichaels’ at all. I can’t say what was in their hearts and on their minds. But as to whether or not it was about race: Do we really imagine that a young white man running by in workout clothes would have drawn the McMichaels’ attention — even if the description of the burglar included that he was white?
If you think so, you might want to listen to some stories of friends who are people of color. They might not like to tell them much, but they have them. Their stories will probably sound like some of the things that have happened to my friend, my brother in Christ, who happens to be a big black guy. There’s the time he was pulled over on his way to a wedding, made to lie on a dirty street in his tux, handcuffed, while the police ran his license plate and ID. There’s the time he was pushed against the hood of a police car, handcuffed again, and made to sit in the back of the car — in front of his wife and daughter — because a police officer saw him toss a burned-out light bulb into the back yard of an apartment building he owned. My friend isn’t belligerent. He’s well aware of how he looks, and even though he shouldn’t have to he tries to speak and act in ways that offset his appearance.
Do you really think I would have drawn that kind of attention? Any other white man?
I’m not saying being white is a moral failing. I’m not saying that if you’re white you’re personally responsible for every wrong ever done by a white person to a person of color.
I’m saying don’t give in to the impulse to rush to defend what shouldn’t be defended.
I’m saying don’t disregard the stories that people of color tell about the injustices done to them.
I’m saying that, if you’re a white person, be sure that people of color find in you an empathetic friend who will listen to their stories, take them seriously, and be as much a part of the healing of racism as you can possibly be.
See, the McMichaels’ aren’t the real problem. The problem is that we live in a world where racism can be found tangled deeply in the machinery of society. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like overt racism. It sounds more like, “I know them, they wouldn’t do something like that.” Sometimes it sounds like, “That’s just the way things get done around here.” Sometimes it’s more like, “We shouldn’t rush to judgment” or “Well, if he wasn’t guilty he wouldn’t have run.”
Jesus reminds us that it’s no trick to “greet our own people.” It’s no trick to love those who are like us (even though we have some trouble even with that). His best test of love is whether or not we can show it to those who are not “our own,” who are different, whose interests don’t line up easily with our own interests.
You know, the way Jesus loved us.
Jesus makes us his own by sacrificing his life for us. The expectation, of course, is that our love won’t just follow the channel of those who are like us, who we understand, whose interests coincide with ours. It’s that our love will overflow the banks and flood our world with the kind of life-giving love that comes from God.
That we’ll love people who aren’t “our own,” and in doing so widen our circles to include them.
That will mean speaking out when we see something unjust. It will mean calling out racism and discrimination wherever we see it, even if it’s uncomfortably close to home. It will mean listening to people of color tell their stories, without defending or excusing, and it will mean weeping with them and being angry with them. And then it will mean standing with them and asking them how we can help to change the world.