When I first watched the video of the confrontation that ended Ahmaud Arbery’s life, I did not simply see a homicide. Instead, I saw two white men hunting down and murdering a black man because they assumed he was guilty of something. The second 911 call reinforced this suspicion; the caller offered only this explanation to the police: “There is a black male running down the street.” The only fact that seemed relevant to the caller was the color of Arbery’s skin. After the incident finally went public, some attempted to explain away racial motives by citing Arbery’s prior arrests, or noting that he had walked around a construction site before the shooting. This suggested that many people would prefer not to deal with ongoing issues of racism and prejudice, a spiritual virus in this country. Then we saw Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin place his knee on George Floyd’s neck and keep it there despite Floyd’s gasps and pleas for breath. This dehumanizing of Floyd demonstrated Chauvin’s own brutality.
The spiritual virus will only recede when the church as a whole proclaims the gospel of life in word and deed. Opposing racism and prejudice must be part of the church’s pro-life stance. The challenge is that all moral problems require some sort of conversion, a fundamental reorientation in outlook and affection. This begins with a turn to the truth. Harriet Beecher Stowe concluded Uncle Tom’s Cabin with an appeal for conversion, noting that
There is one thing that every individual can do,—they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with the sympathies of Christ? Or are they swayed and perverted by the sophistries of worldly policy?
Stowe had employed her literary powers to reorient the emotions and desires of her readers toward the slave as a human person. This is how moral health returns: By ordering our emotions and desires toward what is right.
Frederick Douglass similarly retrained affections by focusing on the dignity of African Americans and how slavery robbed them of this dignity. In his speeches in the 1840s and 1850s, he repeatedly asserted that the institution of slavery dehumanized the slave by crushing the freedom so central to the image of God. As Scripture declares, the most effective kind of slavery involves the destruction of moral and spiritual sensibilities. It occurs when the person becomes “institutionalized” through a process that warps emotion and desire and thereby destroys the work of conscience. “The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property,” Douglass said. “Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility.” Slave masters not only denied human dignity, they also actively sought to destroy it in order to “prove” that the African was a brute.
Other African-American writers took the argument further. In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin rightly saw that the dehumanization of African Americans came at a steep cost to the American republic. Those who perpetuate racism and prejudice do not simply deny the humanity of African Americans, they also dehumanize themselves. You cannot deny Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd their humanity without morally damaging your own. Baldwin understood the relational fabric of human existence. In his words, “If I am not a man here, you are not a man here. You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.”
By highlighting the relational fabric of existence, Baldwin was tapping into the biblical sense of justice and judgment—how God turns individuals over to their own devices. To dehumanize others is to warp one’s own emotions and desires so that one becomes an inhumane brute, and this human inhumanity is itself the mark of divine judgment.
Drawing on the social gospel movement, Martin Luther King Jr. employed the language of “brotherhood of man” to apply the argument of dehumanizing through the disordering of emotion and desire to the nation itself. When he argued against segregation, he was arguing for the common good of the whole, because “the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro.” In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he grounded his argument in a common human dignity reflected in the constitution of the human person and a relational mutuality that wove the destiny of all into a single garment.
King assumed that a nation could be judged by God and that this judgment would take the form of destroying the common good that holds any country together, the communion of the whole nation in the good life. Everyone has a fundamental right to pursue the good of human persons. To degrade a social group through prejudice is to deny that group participation in the moral and spiritual goods common to humanity, thus damaging the common good of society. We are now witnessing despair among African Americans regarding their full participation in the common good.
Racism, prejudice, and the pro-life cause become linked at the level of the disordering and ordering of emotion and desire. Opposition to racism and prejudice is part of the pro-life position—because these moral problems are the result of redefining human dignity to exclude certain social groups. Words are often the tools that perpetuate the moral virus of racism and prejudice. Epithets designed to degrade or deny humanity, like “fetus” or the N-word, reshape emotions and desires by declaring certain persons to be “not fully” human. They cultivate mental and spiritual habits that lead to reductionist accounts of human beings: “There is a black man running down the street.”
We should see the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd as a call for conversion, and begin by recognizing the sacredness of human beings made in the image of God. It is no accident that many African-American writers have drawn deeply from the biblical vision of love and justice. They challenge us to convert to the gospel of life. This is where the pro-life movement plants its flag, and it connects the call to life to the issues surrounding racism and prejudice. All churches together should proclaim this call to turn away from the culture of death.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.