Today, the three men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder were sentenced to life in prison. Arbery’s family has waited almost two years for justice for their son after Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael, and Roddy Bryan mercilessly chased down Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, and fatally shot him while he was running in a Georiga subdivision. This horrible act of violence rightly brought national outrage.
Arbery’s death renewed calls for racial justice and revived painful memories of racial violence across the South through the painful era of Jim Crow and beyond. Thankfully, unlike so many cases of the lynching and death of black men and women throughout America’s history, a jury of mostly white citizens reviewed the evidence and convicted the three men first, and then a judge handed down just sentences for taking the life of a fellow man.
Rejoicing and lament
It is appropriate for Christians to both rejoice and lament in this moment. We can rejoice in the justice of the verdicts and sentences. It is right for these three men to be punished for their heinous racial crime that was perpetrated against an image-bearer of the Almighty. Our American system of earthly justice is far from perfect, but in this case, it brought about a just outcome.
Yet, we should also lament the racial hatred that led to the death of Arbery, who was only jogging through a neighborhood. The guilty verdicts and life sentences, while correct, won’t bring back a son to his grieving parents; it won’t erase the pain they will likely feel for the rest of their lives.
We should also lament the slow wheels of local justice in this case. When the shooting happened, local prosecutors declined to prosecute before a video leaked and provoked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to investigate. The GBI then arrested the McMichaels before the case was transferred to the Cobb County District Attorney.
Though America has come far in moving to uphold her promises of “all men created equal,” she has a ways to go. The weight of slavery and the legacy of Jim Crow haven’t exited quietly. They continue to haunt our nation.
The Christian’s longing for justice
Earthly justice hits at the heart of Christians for many reasons. We believe in the inherent dignity of every human being, knit with care and purpose by God in each womb (Psa. 139). We believe that every drop of innocent blood shed does not escape the watch of the Almighty (Gen. 4:10). Because of this, our hearts were provoked by a good kind of outrage, a demand for justice, when we watched the horrible video showing Arbery robbed of the breath of life.
This longing for justice is not unnatural and has been a feature of the human experience since the entrance of sin in the Garden, when human hearts were corrupted by the enemy and prone to turn in violence on fellow image-bearers (Gen. 3–4). And our imperfect and temporary models of earthly justice point us to a God of perfect justice, a God who turns no blind eyes to racism, hatred, and violence.
Ultimately, our longing for evil to be reversed, for injustice to be made right, and our cries to “let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:24) will not be satisfied in any earthly court. Civil authorities are delegated the sword of justice by God (Rom. 13), but there is only one place where divine justice and wrath against evil was satisfied. It happened 2,000 years ago, on a lonely hill outside a backwater Roman province, as Roman soldiers carried out an unjust state execution of an innocent itinerant rabbi. There, Jesus, human and divine, bore the weight of every unjust act in the universe and the wrath of a holy God (2 Cor. 5:21). No sinful human can pay for their own sin, no matter how long the sentence, no matter how cruel the punishment. Only Jesus, the sin-bearer, can bear this weight. And only God can bring about perfect justice for those who won’t repent.
And yet it was also in this moment when sin — lynchings, racism, violence, the shedding of innocent blood — and death were forever defeated. Jesus not only satisfies our longings for true justice but also defeats, through his death and resurrection, what creates injustice in the first place. The resurrected Jesus is pointing us toward a day without sin, tears, sorrow, and death (Rev. 21:4). Until, then, we work to make our societies more just, to make injustice less common, and to announce the verdict, “It is finished.”