Don't Look Away: Why Ahmaud Arbery's Tragedy Should Be Addressed Instantly The trade
For many in America, the response to the seemingly endless shootings of African Americans has become a terrible form of muscle memory. After another tragedy like the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, we see similar patterns: a first set of reports, followed by social media comments, followed by memorials on different platforms, followed by social media comments on the memorabilia.
Within a week, however, the whole thing is well connected and everyone can go on. Most of us forget that we are deeply immersed in our lives, only to be put back into this cycle when another new shoot is so shattering that it penetrates the roaring sound of our daily news cycle.
The fact that Arbery was killed in February and many only knew it in May speaks for our dependence on images to provoke reactions – a dependency that, as many have emphasized, dehumanizes the victims and is evidence that we do not require Other.
Furthermore, the fact that only images make us take these stories seriously underscores the frenetic nature of our media landscape. So few stories that are not steeped in the political and cultural wars of our time can rise above the chaos to draw our attention. The fact that many feel over-saturated and digitally burned out during our current crisis has only exacerbated this problem of ignorance.
The unfortunate truth is that even in our ability to withdraw in ignorance, we betray inequality in our experiences and systemic injustice in our culture. While this story (although currently so relevant and discussed) will fade for most of us, this story will for others is your experience. They carry it with them when they wonder whether it is safe to run in their own neighborhood or even sit peacefully in their homes.
This simply cannot be accepted without a long and faithful struggle through prayer, solidarity and using our voices and our lives to bring about change.
As difficult as it is at this time of separation, mental exhaustion and insecurity, the Church must engage again and get its people to engage again. We need to see and testify that the dignity of Arbery's life was dehumanized, degraded, and wiped out by a culture that believed to have the right to do so. Even if our flesh and many in our culture advise us to ignore such incidents (or to speak for a week and then go on), we cannot look away.
Look at the problem
Unfortunately, there will always be people who deliberately ignore this type of injustice and say that these stories are inventions or exaggerations. However, our challenge is not for those who refuse to admit that this is a problem. This is often a fruitless effort.
Instead, we best address those who express their sympathy on the outside, but who choose not to look or to quickly look away and move on. These people say the right things and generally see themselves as allies in the fight against racism. However, they subtly move on quickly.
Pastors, theologians, and "thought leaders" who want to lead must be ready to speak prophetically to the Church, which, as I write this, has started to evolve. It is up to the leader to refuse to surrender the room. The demand for justice is long and requires perseverance. Much of the Old Testament prophet's focus was on the steadfast call to insist on justice in a rapidly changing society.
The hard truth is that we cannot claim to be human beings of Scripture without realizing the vital importance of this persistence. Far from being secondary, this is at the heart of what God wants us to do – practice righteousness, love goodness, and live with humility (Micah 6: 8).
Fight our complicity
This week we celebrated the posthumous Pulitzer for Ida B. Wells. Wells was recognized for the award because "it excellently and courageously reports the terrible and malicious violence against African-Americans during the lynching period."
At a time when few would address such a controversial topic, Wells put the spotlight on the topic. Through her tireless work, she refused to let the public go on with life. Wells forced her to face the evil of lynching or forever by participating in his practice.
That's why our meat wants to keep going. If we linger too long, we can no longer lie to what we didn't know. We will be forced to face the evil we have seen and it will cost us. Most of us don't want to pay these costs and have a lot of reasonable reasons why it's not the right time.
But only when we look at the problem, recognize its truth, and step into its reality, can we begin to make real changes.
We force ourselves to look
America has a long history of shocking images that force us to act. One of the best known are the funeral pictures of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in 1957. When he visited relatives in Mississippi, he was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His body was later salvaged from the river, brutally beaten and disfigured.
At the funeral in Chicago, Till's mother made the decision to have an open coffin. In his recent book on Till's Death and Legacy, historian Elliott Gorn offers this powerful reflection on what Till's mother did to open the coffin to the world.
Mamie Till Bradley turned pain into testimony and prophesied against racism and brutality. She spoke as the guardian of all children … Above all, she was a witness against evil, which forced others not to look away: “Let people see what you did to my boy. "
Through iconic photographs of Till's body in the coffin, Bradley forced observers – and still forces us today – to face the reality of their pain and the system of racism and injustice that caused it. In this way, Bradley removed the facade of feigned ignorance from others. They could no longer pretend they didn't know what was going on. They were forced to choose between guilt in evil or to oppose it.
Today we have to face new stories of suffering. Today we cannot look away.
We must testify to evil and urge to see what we do not want to see, thereby taking away the possibility of ignorance. God does not look away from the pain and distress of his people. When we look away or quickly scroll to the next story, we reveal something that contradicts our love and that of God – a separation between our commitment to His inherent spirit and our own. In order to…
Preacher, don't look away, come in on Sunday.
Elders, don't look away, but step into church culture.
Teacher, don't look away, just step into the classroom.
Leaders, don't look away, but step into it in your organizations.
Parents, don't look away, come in at home.
Start by listening to the voices of those for whom this is not a momentary experience but a lived reality. Start by looking at the cultural baggage that allows such a different approach to such stories. Start with prayers of complaint and repentance and lead others to do so.
It is difficult. It will undoubtedly cost us something. But it will make us more like Jesus.
Look away now or never.
Andrew MacDonald is deputy director of the Billy Graham Center Institute at Wheaton College.