Warning. I’m angry and I’m not hiding it. I know that as pastors, we are to be seen as controlled, mellow, and able to harness our emotions, but I’m having a turn over the tables and make a whip moment. Just thought I’d let you all know up front.
Last week, in the midst of all the emotional chaos that is this pandemic and quarantine, thinking that that was where most of my emotional energy would go, I read a news story about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and all of that changed. For those of you who don’t know I will do a basic recap of the story in this next paragraph.
Ahmaud was out jogging in the middle of the day (around 1:00 pm) on February 23 of this year. Two white men saw him jogging through their neighborhood and because he was black and “fit a description” of someone who was suspected in several break-ins in the area (in truth, according to Brunswick News and documents obtained through a public records request, there had only been one robbery in their neighborhood since January). These two men decided that it was their duty to grab guns, get in a pickup truck, and follow Ahmaud. Apparently, they yelled at him to stop jogging several times, and then pulled their truck ahead of him so that they could get out and confront him (with their weapons out). When Mr. Arbery jogs up to the vehicle, he is confronted with a grown man brandishing a shotgun in front of him and another grown man brandishing a handgun in the bed of the truck. Ahmaud then tussles with the man holding the shotgun, seemingly trying to wrestle the weapon away from him. Three shots ring out and after the third, Ahmaud Arbery lays dying in the street. He was not armed, he was not wanted for burglary, he was not breaking any laws, he was simply having a mid-day jog and was confronted by men who decided that they had the right to threaten and commit violence on him.
The part of this story that is almost as upsetting and someone’s life being ripped away from them is that nothing happened about it until May 7. MAY SEVENTH. That’s forty-five days after shooting a man dead in the streets. The first two prosecutors in this case recused themselves of it because of some personal relationship with one of the murderers (he is a former cop who worked directly with the first prosecutor and the son of the second). Both prosecutors before they left, however, said that because of Georgia’s citizen arrest and self-defense laws the murderers had done nothing wrong.
It wasn’t until May 5, when a video of the murder was circulated online that any real action was taken. This video is graphic and shows the events of the murder. Outrage swept across the country, anger, disgust, disbelief, all melded to put pressure on the criminal justice process in Georgia. On May 7, Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested AT HOME and then charged with murder and aggravated assault.
It is in these times that I am both disheartened and encouraged. Justice for Ahmaud has actually started, but we’re still fighting a fight of racism and prejudice that rears its head and snuffs out the life of a 25-year-old man and all the potential that that has. It is only because of the national coverage that anything happened. Only because of the pressure felt by millions of voices. What about those injustices that don’t get coverage like this? Through technology (that I am becoming more and more thankful for, for this specific reason), we have seen justice for those who otherwise wouldn’t have seen any. Unarmed black men shot in their cars (Michael Dean, Philando Castile), their homes (Botham Jean), stores (Steven Demarco Taylor, Ariane McCree), the street (Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown), and the park (Tamir Rice), even police custody (William Green)… This is by no means a comprehensive list, simply one that was made through memory and a quick Google search; there are hundreds and hundreds more.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often credited with saying, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What’s less known is that this is actually a direct borrowing from a sermon Theodore Parker gave in 1853. “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”
Both of these quotes, however, leave the bend towards justice to the arc of the universe, meaning that it’s almost inevitable that justice will occur. I tend to disagree. We must bend it. We must pull and pull until the moral arc of the universe is a little closer to justice. Slavery wasn’t abolished because of the universe, women didn’t get voting rights because of the universe, segregation wasn’t defeated because of the universe, and apartheid didn’t stop because of the universe, justice for Ahmaud isn’t happening because of the universe. We have to pull, all together, relentlessly, tenaciously, unwaveringly for the universe to ever so slightly bend more towards the place where we are all treated equally, where justice flows for all, where we don’t see murderers allowed to stay in the comfort of their own home for forty five days after chasing down and shooting an unarmed 25 year old jogger, simply because he’s black.
Stories like these remind me of how far we have yet to go, how much more pulling there is to be done, how we can’t stop yet. If we are to ever get the universe to bend all the way to justice than we cannot stop pulling, instead we pull, teach others to pull, show our children how to pull, encourage others to pull, and when we get tired and want to let go, we remind ourselves that letting it go is a privilege that some of our brothers and sisters don’t have, a freedom that we have been born with that others of God children can’t yet count on, and so we pull harder. Knowing that our eye may not reach the end of the arc, but as long as we keep pulling and teaching, one day, there will be eyes that do see it.