As a young man, I would spout off on every latest controversy that appeared in the news, whether it was theological or societal. As I grew older (and hopefully wiser), I learned that chirping in on the latest Twitter debate or taking my case to the blogosphere was mostly unproductive and unhelpful. The threefold admonition of James to "be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" serves one well on the internet.
So I personally do not feel the need to express my opinion via a Facebook post or comment section on every latest news item. As one who speaks publicly more often than many, as a pastor, blogger, and seminary president, I still try to be careful not to offer my opinion too readily. Perhaps I am getting not just older but old. I find a great sense of peace in not speaking about events that I have no business addressing.
But the recent controversy regarding the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in February, with the video released last week documenting it, makes me open my mouth. As a minister of the gospel and student of the prophets, I cannot not speak.
As almost everyone reading this post knows, the video shows a black man jogging down a road in a Georgia neighborhood where he comes up to a pickup truck sitting in the road containing two armed men who are white. A third person in another vehicle is following him recording this on camera. The men in the truck confront him, a struggle ensues, and Mr. Arbery is shot at least twice before falling to the ground. He soon dies from his wounds.
Why must I speak? Because this is unjust. Where do any of us have the right to track down with guns another person like you would an animal and confront him? These men who shot him, a father and son with the surname McMichael, said they were suspicious he was stealing things from a construction site. Many others in social media have cited a Georgia law giving citizens the right to make arrests. Still others have said Mr. Arbery had a previous criminal record. Into this cacophony of unjust reasoning and wicked excuse making, I say with the prophet Isaiah, "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause" (Is. 1:16-17).
Why must I speak? Because this is murder. Those citing the Georgia law as some sort of justification for this action need to read it first. David French, an attorney, evangelical Christian, and fellow at the National Review Institute, has. In his article "A Vigilante Killing in Georgia", he shows why the killers of Mr. Arbery should be tried for murder. Even if the victim had stolen something (and there is absolutely no evidence that he did), God's law does not allow the taking of human life for it. A human soul, made in the image of God, is of so much greater value than a power tool. If we deny that, how can we truly worship the Lord? "When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood" (Is. 1:15).
Why must I speak? Because this is racism. We all know, from the 911 call statements like "There’s a black male running down the street” to the way they confronted him, that these men committed this heinous act because of his color. We do not have to subscribe to all the media hype, believe it needs to be classified as a hate crime, or know all the latest social justice terminology to recognize from the basic facts that the McMichaels were angry that this black man was in their neighborhood. As the church is the place where all peoples are to come and know the Lord, living in peace with one another, we should cry out when we see people mistreated because of race. "He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Is. 2:4).
Why must I speak? Because this is close. No, not geographically close. Georgia is nowhere near Pennsylvania. But it is personally close.
For the ministry of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary is blessed by having relationships with churches in the African American community, with pastors and theological students from that community earning degrees from us, and in housing an academic ministry primarily serving urban black students. Through the friendships these interactions have provided me, I have heard life from their perspective. The racial slights and suspicions they regularly encounter. A father's concern about his sons in certain neighborhoods. The ministry tragedies in their communities. I could not hear about this story without thinking of them and what they are thinking.
So I have to speak. I have to, and I cannot stop until Isaiah's vision is fulfilled.
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is. 40:3-5).