Jim Wallis on When Will the Monstrous Become Unacceptable?

People participate in a rally May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia, to protest the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The Rev. Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

It had to happen during COVID-19, and it did, all over again.

Nearly three months ago now, Ahmaud Arbery was followed, cornered and killed by two armed white men with shotguns in their pickup truck — a former cop and his son — while he was out jogging on a bright afternoon through a local neighborhood two miles from his own home. He was 25 years old. The case is currently on its third prosecutor, and Ahmaud’s killers were only arrested after a video of the killing surfaced online and revealed Ahmaud’s death for what it was — the lynching of a black man in 2020.

It made me painfully wonder again, as it always does, what do other white people, and especially white Christians, really think about these things? Are they quietly for it or against it? How much do they even personally care, and, if they do care, will they speak out — especially to other white people? Will white people ever decide that such monstrosities must never be allowed to happen again? On a deeper level, even if most would quickly and sincerely say they are against it, do white people still find these continual lethal killings of black bodies and lives tolerable, or do they think it’s impossible to change?

Until enough white people find the brutalizing and killing of black people by white people — including police — intolerable and unacceptable and necessary to change, it will go on and on and on.

After these regularly recurring events in the U.S., I painfully and with diminishing hope, listen to what white churches and people say or don’t say. Of course, black pastors and churches, after Ahmaud, grieved and mourned, fell into exhausted anger and wailing and lamented how utterly weary they are of these things happening to them and their children in a society that has such little commitment to protect them from ugly, sinful and violent racism. This week, I shared with our whole Sojourners list the most brilliantly and painfully articulated sermon and film footage called The Cross and the Lynching Tree: A Requiem for Ahmaud Arbery by Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III from Trinity United Church of Christ. It was a brilliant articulation of what true Christian faith means in the most dramatic contrast to the counterfeit faith of many white Christians who have submitted and lost their faith to America’s Original Sin.

Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated
family photo. Courtesy photo

Fortunately, there were some white Christian leaders, including a handful of white evangelicals, who raised their voices — though not nearly enough of them. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, evangelist and Bible teacher Beth Moore, Nick Hall, a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Christian conservative lawyer and writer David French were among those who made strong statements after the damning video became national news. Gratefully, a number of mainline denominational and multi-cultural churches, like our young millennial District Church in Washington, D.C., noted the horribly hateful act in their time of prayer. As far as I know, none of Donald Trump’s most famous evangelical supporters and advisers said a word.

Once again, it took a horrific, graphic video to bring this killing into the broader national discourse and to the attention of white America. Yet again, there is always the temptation to conclude that the destruction of black lives by white people will be chalked up to “isolated” and “tragic” “incidents” rather than a broader pattern in which black lives and bodies are treated as having low value or no value by white people and the systems we have created and maintained — including by us as white Christians.

Indeed, just three weeks later, we saw that in the case of Breonna Taylor, a young black EMT gunned down while in bed in her own home on March 13 by police who were searching for a suspect they already had in custody — a killing that was not captured on video. This time, the outcry among white Christians was far more limited and muted, especially outside of the Louisville area.

Unfortunately, these killings aren’t the only ways we see the devaluing of black bodies in the U.S. today.

The COVID-19 pandemic has now laid bare what is still “acceptable” to white America, including many white churches. The unequal suffering of this plague has been verified by the statistics. We’ve seen the tragic, ghastly evidence mount day by day and week by week that COVID-19 is infecting and killing people of color at vastly disproportionate rates. We’ve talked about the clear relationship between the racist structures of U.S. society, the economic and health disparities they create, and the subsequent increased vulnerability of communities of color to the virus. And now we need to talk about how many white people, including many who would call themselves followers of Jesus, are treating black and brown lives in the debate over “reopening.”

Many of the dynamics of the current debate over reopening, though rarely stated this way, ultimately boil down to a simple question: Whose lives are many white people, including white Christians, willing to risk in order to get their lives and the economy back to some hopefully imagined “normal”?

Sadly, far too many of our country’s leaders are presenting the country and our states with a false binary choice between protecting public health and restarting the economy. The reality is that there will be no real and long-lasting recovery without mitigating and ultimately containing this pandemic. In the midst of the necessary efforts to protect lives, we must also do much more to help those who have been worst hit economically.

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Source: Religion News Service