I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the recent news of Ahmaud Arberry, who was killed earlier this year, in Georgia, with no apparent reason except for being black in a white neighborhood. The story has been in the headlines a lot recently because of a video of the incident that recently surfaced. It’s also been on social media, with a lot of people posting his picture or running 2.23 miles to remember that day when he went out for a run and never came back (on February 23, 2020).
I haven’t felt great about putting up my own social media tributes for some reason. Or perhaps for multiple reasons. But it’s not because I don’t have sympathy for the injustices against African-Americans, both historic and current. I’m actually really discouraged about it.
I guess the biggest thing that concerns me is the Cause-of-the-Moment phenomenon. Isn’t racism always a problem in our country?!? Aren’t young black men being murdered every week, whether there’s a video camera there to capture it or no, with at least some root cause of racism and systematic oppression?!? And isn’t racism just one of a big, sad list of injustices happening every day around the world, like war… genocide… sexual harassment and sexual assault… female genital mutilation… “re-education” of ethnic- and political minorities in China… vast economic inequalities that lead to starvation and disease and greater vulnerability in natural disasters… disease… climate change… and evil in all its forms?!?
How does a person realistically create a social media snapshot of all this evil?!? Could #IRunWithMaud potentially even minimize racial issues, not to mention all these other issues — because it helps middle-class white Americans like me to feel like they expressed righteousness even while (subconsciously) continuing to perpetuate the issues?!? There’s something about these media flare-ups that just makes me feel like I’m being manipulated. Played. Trucking in a different sort of status (even if it’s well-intended)…
I feel like I’ve spent decades learning to understand and adopt core values that speak to these issues. And I feel like these core values address the issues in meaningful and sustainable ways. But I don’t want to be self-congratulatory or insulate myself from each individual problem that comes up by saying that, “My core values are already addressing the issues.” I’m still learning and gaining understanding. Still, I don’t want to lose the opportunity to share these core values that are immediately applicable, replicable, and sustainable.
First and foremost: The Gospel is my hope for a world in crisis! It’s the only way that I can make sense of all the brokenness and injustice. I regularly share the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection — and its implications for the world around us — by speaking in terms of self-centeredness and sin versus selflessness and salvation. I don’t know if it’s fully true to say that this is an everyday item of conversation — but it’s pretty close. We all need to understand that each of us struggle with sin and self-centeredness, and this is at the root of all the grave injustices in the world today. I’m so glad that the Gospel has become the centerpiece of my personal life and my career, and I’m praying that it can stay this way for the rest of my life — and for generations to come.
It’s not just a “religious” thing or a “personal salvation” concern. It’s about God making all things new. Yes, there are individual implications, particularly repenting from my own sin and self-centeredness — which includes a personal recognition of the ways that my experiences being bulled in sixth grade by a dark-skinned Mexican classmate fed into deep prejudice and hatred — and renewing my mind every day, as my flesh tries to creep back in. But it’s also way bigger than me — both for the worse and for the better.
Secondly, I want to renew my focus on crossing cultural lines, widening world views, and being a good neighbor to all sorts of different people. This is why I started making videos for Great Commission Ministries back in the late-1990s, and it’s also why I left that position to focus more on face-to-face, life-on-life discipleship. It’s why I moved to Europe for ten years. It’s why I still feel like cross-cultural missions are so important. It’s why I make a point to connect with international students at Kent State University. It’s why I am so passionate about our Thirsty Thursday Outreach in downtown Kent and our church’s “Fifteen Forever” philosophy to prioritize connecting with new people before and after ministry events — as opposed to automatically hiving off into our comfortable cliques as quickly as possible. It’s why I believe so strongly in church-planting and plowing as many resources as possible (financial resources and human resources) into the Great Commission. It’s all connected to this core value of crossing cultural lines, widening world views, and being a good neighbor to all sorts of different people.
I know that it sounds kind of silly to say that a lifelong commitment to “Fifteen Forever” serves to meaningfully combat that systematic injustices that seem to have been exhibited in the death of Ahmaud Arbery — but I really do think that this regular habit is one of the most practical ways we can work against human tendencies towards hate and fear. If white people like me can become friends black people like Ahmaud… or Ethiopian scholars like my friend Abdi… or disabled students like Ashley… or high school drop-outs like Hunter… or gay students like Michael… each of these encounters goes a long way towards building understanding and reducing the apparent misunderstanding that led to the incident on February 23rd.
I still believe there are other political avenues to be engaged. I do shy away from candidates for public office who truck too heavily in “Us versus Them” language and ideology. I do vote for prison reform and government spending to mitigate inequalities (to the point that I would even be in favor of reparations for the descendants of African-American slaves, even if it would cost me dearly). I do keep an eye out for injustices that might be happening within my immediate vicinity and sphere of influence, trying to speak out for others when necessary.
But I also want to keep learning and growing. I don’t want to just pat myself on the back and ignore other opportunities for action. But I do want action, not just hashtags. So help me, God.