Addressing Questions of Justice with the Ahmaud Arbery Case
Deirdre Jonese Austin
On May 5, 2020, the American public gained access to a unique, but also familiar video. Unique in that the name of this victim was Ahmaud Arbery, but familiar in the content depicted, a black man being killed for the sole fact that his blackness was interpreted as a threat. The video depicts events that took place on February 23, 2020, when Ahmaud Arbery was killed by Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and investigator for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney, and his son, Travis, while jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. The perpetrators claimed that Arbery fit the description of the man who had been burglarizing the neighborhood; yet in the United States today, fitting the description often equates to being black. As the United States is forced to face the reality of yet another case in which a young black person has been killed under suspicious circumstances, there is an opportunity to reflect on what justice looks like in the United States, specifically within our criminal justice system and within our churches.
Justice is sometimes defined as “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments” or “the quality of being just, impartial, or fair,” and “conformity to truth, fact, or reason.” Justice entails doing what is right or just, being impartial, and ensuring that the truth comes to light. Within the criminal justice system, we often interpret justice in terms of those who have done wrong being properly punished. Our current criminal justice system is one that centers in punitive justice. Yet, we can also consider restorative justice, which entails a repair of the harm or some sort of restitution that accounts for the best means of addressing the harms caused for all involved.
Within the Church, we can consider justice in relation to the Old Testament Hebrew word mishpat and the ministry of Jesus. Dr. Obery Hendricks says of mishpat, “the term yields a variety of meanings, depending on the context, including rights, vindication, deliverance, juridical norm, and judgment in the sense of setting things aright or in proper order.” He also interprets it in a way that could equate it with restorative justice. In the context of the New Testament, we often consider justice in relation to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31-46. For Jesus, justice often entails employing a love-ethic and a commitment to ‘the least of these,’ or those who are marginalized. In considering how the Church responds to instances of injustice, we can consider the ways in which justice is present in the Bible.
In examining the facts of the Ahmaud Arbery case, justice is brought into question. While Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23rd and family, friends, the Brunswick community, local activists, and the Georgia Chapter of the NAACP had been advocating for justice, it was not until May 5th that the case began to gain traction and national attention after the video of the killing was released. This contributed to the decision to have the case go before a grand jury. On May 7th, Gregory McMichael, the former police officer and investigator, and his son Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault following pressure from local activists and people all over the nation to arrest and charge them. Furthermore, until the evening of May 5th, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had not begun an investigation into the killing; however, they had investigated “allegations of threats against GCPD [Glenn County Police Department] and individuals involved in the active investigation” and “the public release of video.” Thus, the release of the video on May 5th also helped facilitate the request for the investigation into the killing by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In simply observing the facts surrounding the case, there does not seem to have been a commitment to doing what is just, being impartial, or ensuring that the truth comes to light, thus the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has begun an investigation into the handling of the case. It was the release of the video combined with the work of activists and others that resulted in the case going forward. Given this, one wonders what would have happened if there had not been a video? Would justice have been pursued?
In reflecting on the Ahmaud Arbery case, one might ask whether justice is always the intent of the criminal justice system. If justice was the goal, why did it take so long to begin the investigation and for the decision to be made to take the case to a grand jury? The truth seems to be that personal interest, racism, and white supremacy often underlie the ways in which law is enacted and interpreted in the United States. The goal here seems to not have been justice, but the protection of a white former prosecutor’s office investigator and his son. Thus, there also appears to be partiality. Furthermore, it is not until the truth was revealed, primarily with the release of the video, that people began to demand justice and accountability on a national scale. In considering the actions of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, it seems that someone saw the release of the video as more worthy of investigation than the murder itself. These observations call into question the criminal justice system broadly, which too often takes the form of a criminal injustice system, especially in its treatment of cases involving black people and other people of color.
Hence, it is important to note the ways in which justice has been absent in many cases in which the victims are black men and women. Black men and women are often killed because they are viewed as threats, as thugs or superpredators, what scholars call the criminalization of blackness. We remember the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, where Zimmerman viewed Martin as a threat for simply walking through a neighborhood with a tea and some skittles. We can think of Tamir Rice who was killed by police officers while playing with a toy gun in a park. We can think of Atatiana Jefferson who was shot and killed while playing video games with her nephew. Ahmaud Arbery now joins this list; a citizen’s arrest case like that of Trayvon Martin. All these black men and women were killed while doing normal and routine tasks because their blackness was perceived as a threat. Claudia Rankine in her book Citizen: An American Lyric, neatly summarizes the issue: “Because white men can’t police their imagination black men are dying.”
In light of this pattern of abuses — and the lack of accountability for perpetrators of such killings — one wonders if justice will be served in the case of Ahmaud Arbery. Will Gregory McMichael and his son Travis have to pay for the murder, and will the family of Ahmaud Arbery receive restitution and justice?
Churches are an important locus for responding to these instances of racial injustice. The Black Church has a long history as a place of providing some refuge and release from the racial injustices faced in the broader society. In the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing, we can expect Black Churches to respond. Church leaders may post about it on social media or preach about it in their sermons (whether in-person, or over Zoom), and some may participate in making phone calls, signing petitions, and attending protests. While a few will not take action, many black church leaders will do something to acknowledge the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and a need for justice or mishpat.
In contrast to the Black Church, many in white churches and white-led multicultural churches will not respond. They may not be as aware, and they may not see it as a concern because it doesn’t impact them or their community directly. Many white churches and white-led multicultural churches will not respond in any way as they fear being political and creating polarization within their churches. For white churches and white-led churches, addressing racial justices can cost them members, popularity, and income.
Given this disparity, one wonders how white churches and white-led churches interpret justice in the Bible. One key scripture as it relates to mishpat is Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice or mishpat, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” There are many more examples of injustices being addressed in the Old Testament from the words of the prophets to the Exodus narrative. Additionally, Jesus is one who is willing to address injustices as well as unjust structures. For example, Jesus addresses the economic exploitation taking place in the Temple, and in other places he gives advice on the ways in which one can subvert the system and challenge the status quo, such as in the Sermon on the Mount. Moreover, Jesus spends time with those who would have been considered the marginalized of his day, such as the Samaritans and the lepers. If white churches and white-led churches take seriously the context and message of the Bible, then they must take seriously the injustices and unjust systems present in our society, such as systems that uphold racism and white supremacy and contribute to instances of injustice such as the Ahmaud Arbery case. While many will remain silent, it is important to acknowledge that some will speak out, but not enough.
As we wait to see if justice will be served in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, there is great opportunity for churches — Black and white — to actualize their Biblical conceptions of justice. The Church itself can invoke mishpat by calling the criminal justice system to be all that it claims to be as it relates to being just, impartial, and a means of bringing the truth to light.
Deirdre “Jonese” Austin is a Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology. Her research interests include the Black Church and the intersections of religion, race, politics, and social justice, and you can learn more about her at DeirdreJoneseAustin.com.