Ahmaud Arbery and Psalm 31
May 14, 2020Before the pandemic happened, we were spending a lot of time with the psalms. Thom Rock was teaching a class on them, and at Diocesan Council in February Bishop Reed had challenged the diocese to read the psalter together this year. I encourage you to continue reading them. Last week I had one of the most powerful experiences with a psalm I’ve ever had. I want to share it with you. Fair warning: Easter Season or no, it was a Good Friday kind of experience.
Our psalm last Sunday was Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16. The first verse of that passage is this:
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness. (Ps. 31:1)
These are beautiful words, ones in which the speaker beseeches God to save him. Not an abstract, spiritual kind of saving, but a real, tangible saving from mortal danger. I read these words early last week as part of my usual weekly rhythm, and then a couple days later, I learned of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. (If that word “lynching” seems inappropriate, I commend the link to you.)
If you’re not familiar with his death and would like to read more, here’s a news link which includes links to other sources. I watched the video of the whole thing that swept the internet. It’s harrowing and I do not recommend it, though I will describe parts of it here. I remember the gunshots, the shouting.
Incline your ear to me;
make haste to deliver me. (Ps. 31:2)
The video was taken by someone driving a car behind Ahmaud, who was out running. In front of Ahmaud there is parked a white truck. In it there are white men with guns shouting for him to stop.
Behind Ahmaud, the video and all of us watching. In front of him, the men with the guns and the shouting. He tries to veer around the truck, but there is nowhere to go.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold;
for the sake of your Name,
lead me and guide me. (Ps. 31:3)
There is nowhere for Ahmaud to go. In front of him, there is a white truck where men with guns are shouting for him to stop. They have pursued him and now they are waiting. They are parked in front of Ahmaud, and they are waiting for him.
Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me,
for you are my tower of strength. (Ps.31:4)
There is a fight. Ahmaud Arbery fights one of the men who were waiting for him with their weapons in their white truck. He is unarmed. He wrestles one of the men; he punches him. There is a gunshot, and then another.
Into your hands I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth. (Ps. 31:5)
Ahmaud and the man release each other. The man with the gun walks back to the truck. Ahmaud tries to keep running but cannot. He is bleeding. He stumbles, he falls. His body is broken.
They say he was a burglar.
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me. (Ps. 31:15)
Ahmaud is dead, and the weeks go by. There are no arrests. There is no outcry. There is a pandemic. We delay. We are delayed. We are slow in justice and slow in grief. Mothers like his are reminded that their fears for their sons’ lives are well-founded.
The day I heard about Ahmaud’s death I had gone for a run through many neighborhoods. I cut through a school, a construction site, a gas station parking lot, and the corner of someone’s yard. People waved. Their dogs wagged.
No one yells at me. No one assumes I must obey their commands. There are no armed men waiting in trucks.
The voice of Psalm 31 is not my voice. It is the voice of Ahmaud, and it is the voice of Jesus.
Make your face to shine upon your servant,
and in your loving kindness save me. (Ps.31:16).
Please, God, save him.
I have said the words of Psalm 31 probably more than any other psalm. They are part of the Order for Compline, which I said every night at summer camp growing up. I have meant them, and they have been my own. But this week they were not mine. They were tragic, horrifying, and strange.
They were the words of all the people we continue to crucify. The voices of those crushed by the powers and principalities of this world, by systematic racism, by vigilantism and the will to dominate.
I was reminded that in the Passion of God and humanity, we usually count three basic roles: the one on the cross, the crowd calling for blood, and the rest of us, standing far off, watching, discomforted, afraid.
But maybe that’s just how it looks from where I usually count myself, out on the pious edge, wringing my hands. This week, reading Psalm 31, I began to wonder if maybe there aren’t three roles at all. Maybe the point is to see things the way a person on the cross would see it. From there, it’s probably just the Crucified One and everybody else.
Maybe proclaiming Christ Crucified means viewing the world in this way, with the eyes of the one on the cross. It is only God’s perspective that matters, after all, only Christ who will judge the world.
It was a Good Friday kind of week because we were reminded that this is still a world where crucifixions happen. On Good Friday, the one who is on the cross is the One Who is our Judge. I found myself wondering what he sees from up there, from the place where he still hangs, and I prayed that Easter would come for the mothers of black sons.