Grieving with our African American Brothers and Sisters

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many…If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
1 Corinthians 12:14, 26
By now, I suspect many of you have watched the video that recorded the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, at the hands of two white males who argue they were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest. It’s easy to get caught up in the “ifs, ands, or buts” of the video and the motives of all involved. That helps no one but Satan who seeks to divide us more than we already are. Let us pray that the justice system will work diligently to find answers to unresolved questions and come to the right conclusions so that justice may be done. Let me remind us, though, that for Christians, our hope is not in human systems of government or justice. We entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly. Only our Lord can discern the motives of the human heart. So, let’s pray that our Lord's justice may reflect in the earthly systems of government he has instituted for those purposes (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:13) – in this case, and every case. But if not, know that all will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account for their words and actions on this earth. It is this hope in the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead that frees us from taking vengeance into our own hands. Justice will be done – either here and now and/or there and then on the Last Day. Come, Lord Jesus!
The real reason I’m writing to you about Ahmaud Arbery is that amid the ongoing debates about personal actions, individual rights and state laws, personal motives, and even video content, those of us who are not African American may fail to understand why our black brothers and sisters in Christ are grieving over Ahmaud Arbery’s death. If we don’t understand why they’re grieving, we won’t be able to grieve with them. Regardless of your personal opinion on this case, or the outcome of the judicial processes, we need to grieve together. Let me offer three reasons:
  1. The Bible. In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul reminds us that we are one body with many members (v.12). “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (v.13). All who profess faith in Christ have been baptized into the one body of Christ. And, in our case, that one body is manifested locally as High Pointe Baptist Church. Not only do we need each other (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female, young/old, black/white, Asian/Hispanic), because we are one body, we are also to share one another’s burdens, joys, and sorrows. “If one member suffers,” says Paul, “all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (v.26).
High Pointe, whenever one of us is suffering, we are to share in that suffering. Why? Because that one person is a part of our body. If you slam your foot in a door, your mouth doesn’t say, “Well, that was dumb! I’m not going to share your pain.” No! Your whole body shares in that painful experience. Likewise, when one of our members suffers, we share in that suffering. Our African American brothers and sisters are grieving over Ahmaud Arbery, and because we are one body, we will grieve with them. If you are not grieving with our black brothers and sisters over the tragic end to Ahmaud Arbery’s life, ask yourself why not. If you don’t understand why our black brothers and sisters are grieving over the death of a 25-year-old black man they’ve never met, ask several of them to help you understand. They’ll be glad to have that conversation with you, and together, we will learn how to bear one another’s burdens.
  1. History. Christians agree that chattel slavery was a horrendous evil during which African men, women, and children were kidnapped, brought to a foreign land, then sold as property. We affirm that such treatment of human beings flies in the face of human creation as God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28; 9:6). We acknowledge that while emancipation may have technically freed Africans from slavery, the majority-white culture, particularly in the South, found other ways to keep Africans (and those born to them), in bondage – think Jim Crow laws. What may be hard for non-African Americans to appreciate, though, is that after generations of discrimination based on the color of one’s skin, that kind of sinful partiality, to use the words of the apostle James (2:1-13), has left a stain of residual discrimination against African Americans. Let me be clear. I am not saying that the white men who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery were motivated by racism. We cannot know that, and that is not my point. My point is much larger than that. The historical attitudes of sinful partiality against African Americans that remain in parts of our country, allow blacks to continue to be treated as second-class citizens who are to be looked at with suspicion (at best) and as dangerous (at worst).
As a result, many African Americans I interact with tell me how hard it is for them to navigate in a majority culture world. I’ve heard countless firsthand accounts of black brothers and sisters who have walked into a store or through a neighborhood that, upon entering, immediately felt “all eyes on them” in suspicion. It’s hard for us to understand that because many of us can simply walk into most public places and think nothing of it. It’s not right that African Americans still live in a world in which they need to consider whether or not it’s safe for them to go into a particular store or go for a run in a specific neighborhood. African Americans grieve for Ahmaud Arbery because they identify with him and have likely experienced similar suspicions when they were in a place where some people felt they “didn’t belong.” We must grieve with our African American brothers and sisters that these sinful attitudes still prevail in parts of our country.
  1. Personal Experience. High Pointe, I know you love your black brothers and sisters in Christ and cannot imagine ever feeling or saying anything that would demean them. But all you need to do is experience this discrimination once to understand and grieve with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ.
The first time I remember witnessing overt ethnic discrimination was in college when I invited a friend to sing and play the piano at our small church in rural North Florida. She did a fantastic job. But after the service, the pastor pulled me aside and said, "I understand what you're trying to do, Juan, but please don't do that again." All I did was invite a college friend to provide special music for our service. What I had not realized, though, was that in that little church, there was a strong anti-African American sentiment. The church members were gracious to me (the color of my skin was light) but, inviting a black woman to their church crossed the line. In all my years of pastoral ministry, I’ve had similar experiences in two other churches in North Florida and yet another church in Georgia. What I’ve learned is that people I loved and loved me still had residual attitudes of discrimination against African Americans. These attitudes were deeply rooted in their history, culture, and traditions, sinful attitudes (James 2:9). While, in this context, blacks were treated with civility in public, in private, they were held in suspicion. I’ve witnessed this firsthand more times than I care to remember.
Beloved, we must grieve with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ as they identify with Ahmaud Arbery. He is not a nameless, faceless individual; he is a real person who serves as a reminder that the sin of partiality continues to reside in the hearts of too many Americans – not necessarily as a motive for murder but as a basis for suspicion of just being black. Let us grieve with our African American brothers and sisters in Christ because they are a part of us, and we are a part of them. And when they suffer, we suffer with them.

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