BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Ahmaud Arbery loved to run. It was how the 25-year-old former high school football standout stayed fit, his friends said, and it was not unusual to see him running around the outskirts of the small coastal Georgia city near where he lived.
But on a Sunday afternoon in February, as Mr. Arbery ran through a suburban neighborhood of ranch houses and moss-draped oaks, he passed a man standing in his front yard, who later told the police that Mr. Arbery looked like the suspect in a string of break-ins.
According to a police report, the man, Gregory McMichael, 64, called out to his son, Travis McMichael, 34. They grabbed their weapons, a .357 magnum revolver and a shotgun, jumped into a truck and began following Mr. Arbery.
“Stop, stop,” they shouted at Mr. Arbery, “we want to talk to you.”
Moments later, after a struggle over the shotgun, Mr. Arbery was killed, shot at least twice.
The Times later ran another piece that laid out what happened in the confrontation as best we know:
In a recording of a 911 call, which appears to have been made moments before the chase began, a neighbor told a dispatcher that a black man was inside a house that was under construction on the McMichaels’ block.
During the chase, the McMichaels yelled, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” according to Gregory McMichael’s account in the police report. They then pulled up to Mr. Arbery, and Travis McMichael got out of the truck with the shotgun.
“[Gregory] McMichael stated the unidentified male began to violently attack Travis and the two men then started fighting over the shotgun at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot,” the report states.
The police report and other documents obtained by The New York Times do not indicate that Mr. Arbery was armed.
Gregory McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer and a former investigator with the local district attorney’s office who retired last May. Neither he nor his son has been arrested or charged.
So let’s lay out the key points based on the NYT reporting:
- Arbery was jogging in the neighborhood.
- A black man was seen in a house currently under construction in the neighborhood according to the 911 caller. To my knowledge, there is no corroboration of the claim and no proof that the man, even if he was in the house, was Arbery. (NOTE: Brunswick GA’s population is 60% African-American.)
- The McMichaels saw Arbery jogging, grabbed a couple guns, hopped in a pickup truck, and chased him. As they got closer, they told him to stop and said they want to talk with him.
- When the younger McMichael approached Arbery, a physical confrontation began—according to the older McMichael Arbery initiated it but as he is the father of the other man in the fight, we should be careful about how much we trust that testimony. The fight then ended when the younger McMichael shot Arbery at least two times. (There is a video of the final moments of the conflict in which two gun shots can be heard. I have watched the video since I am commenting on the killing publicly. But I would not recommend watching it. It’s horrible.)
So let’s stipulate, for sake of argument, that there was a black man in the unfinished home, that the man was Arbery, and that Arbery initiated the physical conflict when the McMichaels caught up with him. To be clear, we do not know if any of those things are true. But I am granting all these points for argument’s sake so as to present the best possible version of the event for the McMichaels.
Even if that version is the true one, this is still murder. Let’s use two different lines of thought to get there.
First, here is what the Westminster Larger Catechism says about the sixth commandment, which is ‘thou shalt not kill.’
Q. 135. What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
A. The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreation; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior: forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
This hopefully does not need saying, but: If two white men grab a couple guns, jump in their pickup, and start chasing a black man, they are obviously failing to use ‘all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others.’ Indeed, one struggles to imagine situations more likely to lead to ‘the unjust taking away (of) the life of any’ than two private citizens grabbing a couple guns, jumping in a truck, and chasing down an unarmed pedestrian. Thus this is a violation of the sixth commandment and is an unjust killing, which is to say it is murder.
We can also get there another way. The Christian tradition knows only one case in which a civilian killing another person is morally permissible. That instance is self-defense. The way we have justified that traditionally is through an appeal to what has come to be known as the principle of double effect. In defending myself, I am not intending to kill another person, but to preserve my own life which I have reason to fear is under threat.
So I am not intending to kill, but merely to preserve my own life—the killing is an unintended effect of my just act to preserve my life. That is plainly not what was happening in this case. The conflict was initiated by the McMichaels, who decided to grab multiple guns and pursue a man jogging through their neighborhood. They had no need to defend themselves because they were not under any threat until they first threatened Arbery.
Thus even if these apparent ambiguities in the story are favorable to the McMichaels, the basic fact is still the same: Per the fairly clear teaching of the Christian tradition, Travis McMichael murdered Ahmaud Arbery. Moreover, as this was an extrajudicial killing carried out by multiple people—the elder McMichael drove the vehicle and first called to his son to come with him as he pursued Arbery—it also meets the definition of a lynching.
Obviously the relative power of individual citizens in this case is limited. We cannot compel the authorities in Georgia to deal justly with the McMichaels, both of whom ought to face criminal charges assuming all the facts presented to this point are accurate. However, the Bible tells God’s people that we ought to act justly. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery is an example of gross injustice. And just as we speak up in protest when the unborn are killed, so we ought to speak up with similar vehemence when a black man is killed in the street without any proof that he had even committed a crime, to say nothing of the lack of due process and a fair trial. With only one exception, any instance of civilians killing a person is injust. This case does not meet that exception and so is by definition unjust.
If we are to be people who act justly and promote justice, which is that each person receives their rightful dues, then we must rightly discern what has happened in the case of Arbery. This was a lynching. It was an act that God hates. And so we must recognize that and we must call it by its name and speak out against it and against all such acts of injustice.