The United States has a long history of racial terror lynchings. Particularly from the Civil War until this day, thousands of Black men, women and children have been indiscriminately killed for a myriad of reasons. When that killing took place at the hands of 3 or more, it was called a lynching. In attempts to address the phenomenon legally, the definition of the term has been restricted, particularly by the NAACP, to be a killing in which the killers acted under the pretext of justice, their race, or tradition.

If this is in fact the definition of lynching, Ahmaud Arbery was undeniably lynched.

But Black communities (and anyone familiar with this history) do not need that definition to see the resonance and to feel the terror that comes with reading such a story.

The same feeling wracked communities in Montgomery, Alabama on July 25, 1917 when Will and Jesse Powell were lynched to a tree for brushing against a farmer’s horse.

That same feeling wracked communities in Missouri and Arkansas in June, 1926, when Albert Blades, 22, was hanged and burned for attacking a small white girl. Evidence actually suggests, however, that he was merely present at a picnic grounds where this girl was playing with her friend and she was startled by his presence.

That same feeling wracked communities in Texas and around the country when Botham Jean was murdered in his own apartment.

The message was the same then as it is now: if you “fit the description”, you are not safe to walk. You are not safe to sit in your own apartment. You are not safe to run outside. Such is the purpose of racial terror lynchings, both now and historically.

So then the question remains: what ought we do about it? To answer that question, as both a historian and someone who is fundamentally devoted to the body of Christ in such work, I must answer that question by answering these questions: how has the body of Christ failed to do such work and how can we do better?

The first, most important and most hopeful thing to know is that the body of Christ has not been silent. But it is equally important to know that the voices have been those of Black Christians, often manifesting as Isaianic and Johannine cries in the wilderness against white supremacy, defined in this piece as the thoughts, words, acts and systems that suggest and enforce white superiority. Henry McNeal Turner, Ida B. Wells, and Francis Grimke are but a few of the names of those prophetic voices and we will return to them at the end of this piece. But when one looks to the mouths of white Christians in the history of lynching, however, one must prepare for profound disappointment.

In a response to one of the most brutal lynchings in American history, the 1893 lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, Bishop Atticus Haygood of the Methodist Episcopal Church South penned an editorial titled, “The Black Shadow in the South”, to explain why Smith had been burned alive. In that editorial, he hit many of the points that we recognize today in coverage of police shootings of unarmed black men and women. He framed the burning alive of Henry Smith as a communal act of self-defense tinged with moments of collective, temporary insanity to justify the brutality. Smith had been accused of rape and murder but hundreds of others were accused of much lesser offenses ranging from bumping a white person’s shoulder to “being saucy” to nothing at all. If you want to read those stories, read Ida B. Wells’ A Red Record and Southern Horrors.

But in the stories of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson and others, we constantly hear this justification: that somehow murder is the proportionate response to one’s discomfort. Post-hoc rationalization also kicks in. For lynching defenders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was the claim that even if the executed man or woman wasn’t guilty of the crime of which they were accused, they were guilty of something. Today, it is the clause at the end of every news story outlining the criminal record of the murdered.

But it was the case and is the case now that at the time of such murders, no such details were known about the victims. All that was known was their color. And throughout American history, that has been sufficient for a death sentence.

The continuing voice that issued from white pulpits, insofar as it addressed lynching at all, was a voice of justification, often tinged with explicit theology. In 1903, Robert Elwood, pastor of Olivet Presbyterian church, preached 1 Corinthians 5:13, “God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you,” as an explicit warrant to lynch George White quickly. Haygood hemmed and hawed his way into trying to find some way to explain why a crowd of thousands would torture Henry Smith for an hour with red hot iron brands, burn out his eyes, thrust the irons down his throat and burn him. Instead of naming, hating and resisting evil, the first impulse was to somehow explain it. Some of us share that impulse and often, that is precisely the space of indecision and inaction in which our true enemies according to the Apostle, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers, move.

So then what can we do moving forward? Is there still a way for the church of Christ to be a beacon of hope in the midst of the encroaching and oppressive darkness of white supremacy? There are two: we must read our Bibles differently and we must act in our world differently.

Being a confessional Presbyterian, I have found much hope and beauty in the Westminster Standards. When asked why I, as a black man, attempt to remain in a communion which historically was the architect of my ancestors’ enslavement, I respond that I am so because of its doctrine and polity and in direct resistance to its history. When I read Question 135 of the Westminster Larger Catechism and I consider what it means to “resist all thoughts and purposes, subdue all passions and avoid all occasions, temptations and practices that tend toward the unjust taking away the life of any,” my mind immediately moves to antiracist resistance. The sixth commandment calls us to much more than that, but it does not call us to less. It is not enough for us not to murder one another. We must actively support one another’s lives.

This means that our interaction with the Scriptures must be fundamentally shaped by the commands which Christ has given us: to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds and love our neighbors as ourselves. This means that when we consider the Gospel, we must be reminded that the good news of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and return is personal, communal, and cosmic good news. It means that our actions and priorities ought to be shaped and dictated by the prophets, Christ and the apostles, who unanimously saw the two great abrogations of those two commands as idolatry and the oppression of the poor.

This means that when we confess our sins to one another, those must be our categories. This means that when we look to our theologians, preachers, and exegetes, we ought to expect to come to a deeper understanding of how we are idolaters and how our thoughts, words, and deeds tend toward the oppression of our neighbors. We ought to weep and repent. Then we ought to consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.

This means that when we consider the poor, however, we must consider not only those who are materially poor, but those whom society has treated as inferior. In the American context, race has been the most oft-used weapon of oppressive war; thus, Christ’s church has a particular responsibility to beat that sword into a plowshare and seek to heal the wounds that weaponized racialization has wrought. Battling an enemy like weaponized racialization requires us to use all of the resources we have at hand, whether they be moral reasoning, history, sociology, biblical interpretation, theology, or activism, to see it weakened and defeated.

White supremacy, in a move that is typical of sin, has erected walls of protection around itself, to the point that some think that it is reasonable for two armed white men to demand that a jogging black man stop for them and then for them to shoot him, as they did with Ahmaud Arbery. Such evil walls of protection then produce and reinforce a society in which such men are not only used to getting their way, but also are assured by their communities that there will be no consequences because Black life is continually diminished. It must be a priority of the Christian, then, to see the dismantling of such walls of protection.

This means, yes, you’re going to have to get political. I have already said everything I need to say about “social justice” elsewhere. You and I are going to have to mobilize the political capital we have to be obedient to Christ’s command. If it is true that we are to set ourselves carefully and constantly against that which kills our neighbors, you and I must vocally resist the thoughts, words, actions, and systems that prop up white superiority and denigrate Black humanity.

We must interrogate and dismantle the narratives of Black criminality that give people the overweening confidence to go out and murder a man because they think he fits a description. We must assure the endangered brothers and sisters in our midst that we are members of one another. If we have truly been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, then when one of us suffers, the whole Body suffers.

Lynching was common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and it still happens. There is no comforting or redeeming end to this history. White supremacist violence can only be described as demonic: for its resilience is supernatural. While men and women are no longer being burned alive in front of crowds of thousands, the fear of unjust death still remains for every Black family in this country and there seems to be no place of refuge. But it is only this way because people have made it so.

Thus if the American Christian wishes to live out the gospel they claim to believe, they must seek racial justice in their personal relationships and in the world around them. Anything less crucifies the Savior anew and puts him to open shame. We have tasted of God’s indiscriminate grace and mercy. To justify death with subtle manifestations of partiality, greed, and pride is to, by our actions, deny the person and work of Christ. That is admittedly strong language, but it is not unprecedented, as I follow in the line of Black Christian anti-lynching thought and work. As Francis Grimke so aptly put it, “race prejudice can’t be talked down; it must be lived down,” and Black people have been trying to live it down ever since it reared its infernal head. It’s about time that the universal Church joined us in that endeavor. Lives have been, are, and will be at stake.

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Posted by Malcolm Foley

Malcolm is a fifth-year PhD candidate in Baylor’s Department of Religion, studying the history of Christianity. His dissertation investigates African-American Christian responses to lynching from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. Malcolm earned a BA in religious studies with a second major in finance and a minor in classics from Washington University in St. Louis. He subsequently completed a Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School, focusing on the theology of the early and medieval church. During his time there, he served Trinity Baptist Church in New Haven as a pastoral intern. He is currently the Director of Discipleship at Mosaic Waco in Waco, TX.

  • Thomas Mitchell

    Thank you, sir. I was raised in the South by parents who did not tolerate racist language, but it is only in the last couple years, since Ferguson, MO, that I have truly come to understand my privilege. I have many white folks in my circle, bubble, whatever we call it these days that still do not. I think that lack of understanding helps perpetuate the deplorable lack of stronger response. I will renew my efforts in my Sunday School class and my interactions with others to continue to resist the denial of that privilege.

  • David Tiffany

    It’s amazing to me how those who want to discriminate against those of a different color don’t see the obvious. On the ark one family of eight was saved from the flood. All peoples of the earth come from them, whether black, white, brown, yellow, red.

    We’re all from the same stock.

    https://downtownministries77.blogspot.com/2019/04/gospel-of-grace.html?m=1

  • Vince Scott

    I would like to see a similar list of Black on white murders, which would show this article to be a hysterical load of BULLSCHIFF. This writer should be ashamed for dredging up this one side load of garbage. This country isn’t the same as it was 50 years ago much less going back over 100 years to dredge up a hate filled diatribe!

    • David Gobart

      Almost felt the same….

      Bringing up Trayvon Martin does not bringing much credibility to the article.

      Someone starts smashing me, I’m gonna shoot him too.

  • mintap

    Yes, Christians need to cry out for justice! Justice demands principles like innocence until proven guilty, due process, the right to a trial by jury of peers, among other rights. Christians not defending these are not defending justice.

  • Jim Miller

    As a follower of Jesus, we must be about justice for all peoples and seek to help when and where we can. Sometimes, “Justice” can be hijacked by political agendas. Since this is my first time on the site, does Justice advocated by this author include justice for all lives or just minority populations? Thank you.

    • Ben Post

      Well, he’s a fan of Critical theory, and likely, by default, alot of other very, very dubious ideas, so I’d definitely be weary of his tendencies.

  • Sarah

    To the author,
    This was well written! Thank you for this article and your suggestions for how to move forward.
    I am sorry that you have to endure the comments below. Sadly, some people feel defensive and go on the attack when confronted with cogent challenges about race issues. I still have hope that beautiful transformation of individuals and, thus our culture, will continue to happen and maybe even accelerate between people of different skin pigmentation and culture.
    Blessings to those who present themselves as “enemies” as demonstrated in some of these comments. Let’s keep our discussion civil and respectful. Do unto others…

  • Ben Post

    People would be wise to read his views on Social Justice here (his own words from link above):
    https://mereorthodoxy.com/an-evangelical-response-to-the-statement-on-social-justice-and-the-gospel/
    Not a rousing endorsement of his reasoning skills.

    • lwall

      Ben, here’s how you could make your comments more helpful and convincing:

      1. Don’t post a link to an article, and then say “Not a rousing endorsement of his reasoning skills.” If your assertion is really so apparent, it wouldn’t kill you to write a few sentences arguing why you believe this to be the case.
      2. Regarding your comment to Jim Miller, “Well, he’s a fan of Critical theory, and likely, by default, alot of other very, very dubious ideas…” Again, you’re making a big assertion here, and on top of that (and speaking of “reasoning skills”) you’re making a hasty generalization of Mr. Foley, which reflects not on his lack of careful thought and writing here and elsewhere, but rather on your willingness to rush in without doing your homework first.
      3. Regarding your comment to Jim Miller, “alot” should be “a lot” and when you say “weary”, I believer you mean “wary”, as in “cautious.” I’m sorry if correcting your spelling and word usage seems like a cheap shot, but, it’s hard to take your criticism seriously when you aren’t being careful with your spelling and grammar.

      To sum up: it’s fine to disagree with Mr. Foley. It’s improper to criticize his positions and reasoning, when you so clearly demonstrate lack of “reasoning skills”, and an unwillingness to spend the time to carefully represent your thoughts.

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  • HCP

    This is an obscenely irresponsible article.

    It is entirely possible to (1) suggest that even IF Arbery was committing a crime, the response was criminally disproportional, that (2) the father/son will now receive due process because they robbed Arbery of that, and (3) the optics of this do not look good despite the best defense attorney’s best efforts.

    Notice none of that had to do with race. If through trial and the law (the common mechanism of interpreting and assessing crime) it becomes clear that the accused were indeed racially motivated, that is disgusting and a sin. I will join in denouncing it as such. EVEN still, this is no proof that we are “all racist” and “all complicit” in the underlying attitudes and mindsets that led to this killing, let alone that is a “lynching”. No long-form melodramatic manifesto is going to convince all of us otherwise.

    To my fellow readers: you did not shoot Arbery. Neither did I. Some very strange and bad people in Georgia did, and if they’re racist, let’s all denounce them as such. In the meantime, let’s also responsibly let all the facts trickle in so we can make an informed judgement. In order to be a mature nation, we’re going to need to be capable of holding multiple thoughts in our mind at the same time. Hopefully the author recognizes this.

  • HCP

    I’ve re-read the article and pondered it some more. It has more fundamental problems.

    The author feels free to largely disregard the facts of the case and asserts it’s a lynching by effectively rearranging its presentation to conveniently match some very disgusting lynchings from American history. At present, the overt racism the author presumes is not in fact obvious. A careful review of the facts will reveal this to be true or false in time. If this was a hate crime, it’s reprehensible. But it’s not clear that it was. For that matter, a truly nuanced assessment of this incident would perhaps yield more to discuss about American political life than the predictable focus on the interracial nature of the crime: a problem of vigilante justice, a potential breakdown of order in small towns when trading on reputation overtakes rule of law, etc. If we’re going to suggest that American culture is complex, we have to acknowledge that there’s more to this than a standard template application of left-leaning identity politics can provide.

    The more troubling problem, however, is the author’s suggestion that some small or large part of America is a deceitful, disguised power structure designed to protect a malicious and oppressive white hegemony masquerading as something noble. Under this rubric, the author gives himself license to sidestep his opponents. He is under no obligation to reason against his opponents, but may rather dismiss argument and behavior by indicting motives. He sees not law, but a secret mechanism to reinforce evil. This may be true in exceptions, but it is a dangerous approach and is alogical. This is not discourse, it is conspiracy. It is hard to see how it could not be turned against him to detrimental outcomes for everyone.

    I am consistently troubled to see how evangelicals handle race-relations, especially those pieces that pass as intellectually refined. I’ve seen more and more evangelicals simply outsource their opinions on race relations to left-wing progressives who do not share first principles with evangelicals, and are certainly not their friends.

    Facts matter. Because of that, this article is presumptive. Any Christian rightly decries racism. I do. I will if Arbery’s killing was a hate crime. But it will take more than the comfortable glasses of identity politics to say so.

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