“Who is my neighbor?” This lawyer’s question brings us a radical story from Jesus this morning. “Who is my neighbor”
Jesus’ answer is a story that has become one of his best known teachings. On the surface the message of the Good Samaritan seems simple: be kind. Show mercy. The very name “Samaritan” has even become shorthand for mercy ministries in the church. I’ve worked in churches on both coasts, and I’ve known “Samaritan ministries” that have done everything from taking care of the homeless to providing health insurance. “Good Samaritan,” the words go together in our minds today. But, as a Canadian minister once said, “A text without a context, can become a pretext.”
The words “Good Samaritan” together would have shocked Jesus’ lawyer. The man can’t even bring himself to say “The Samaritan was his neighbor” at the end of the story. He says, “the man who showed mercy.” “Samaritan” was a bad word in Jesus’ day. Samaritans were the “outsiders” the “other” to the Jewish people. We’re not entirely sure why, but Second Kings eludes to an idea that the Samaritans took advantage of the Jewish Exile and occupied the land.
It’s hard to come up with an equivalent label to “Samaritan” in our own context, partly because we’re so divided. But try this on for size. If Jesus was at the Democratic National Convention later this summer and a lawyer asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus might tell this story about the priest and the official passing a beaten man on the side of the road. Then Jesus would shock them and say “An NRA member and Fox News host walking home from a tent revival happened upon the man.” Or if Jesus was at the Republican Convention he might surprise them by saying, “a socialist Muslim migrant came by after a protest, and cared for the man.” This parable is radical because Samaritans weren’t the good guys. Yet somehow, Jesus causes this lawyer to question. Jesus invites him to expand his neighborhood to include the outsider, the enemy.
Who is my neighbor? This is a question we desperately need to ask in America today. We have survived a miserable week. Waiting to board a plane Thursday in London, coming back from three weeks abroad, I saw first the video of Alton Sterling and then the video of Philando Castile being killed by police officers. Friday morning, I awoke back home in America, to hear that five police officers had been killed in the line of duty at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.
This week I have seen expressions of worry from black friends. Hugs have been a little tighter sending a husband or a son out for the day. “Please come home again” has taken a prayerful tone in some families. It’s not just my African American friends who are terrified. Police families may know the fear well, but they’re feeling it especially after Dallas. This has been a miserable week.
There is a danger this week, that we will retreat to our little camps. When we are driven by fear we can tighten our wagons, and work to actively keep outsiders out of our figurative neighborhoods.
Who is my neighbor?
How often do we, like Jesus’ lawyer, think we know exactly who we count and discount as neighbors? How often are the “sides” clearly demarcated? How easily do we divide people into camps?
I can’t even talk to her, she’s a Trump supporter.
I had to unfriend him, everything he posted praised Obama.
She’s just an angry black woman, I can’t listen to her.
He’s a white straight man. He can’t even see his privilege.
We do violence to our community when we divide. When we see a label instead of a person, we refuse a basic truth. We are all, all of us, created in the image of God. All God’s people have equal value. We are all neighbors.
The violence of our divisions became visible and deadly this week. First to Baton Rouge and St. Paul. I believe most police officers truly want to protect and serve everyone. Undeniably, there are police officers out there who operate from a place of overt unchallenged racism. The text message chains exposed from officers in San Francisco last year, filled with racial epithets, were not an isolated phenomenon. We need to require anti-bias and anti-racist education for our police officers. Such training is required for ministers, for teachers, and for all sorts of other professionals. It makes sense to require our public safety personnel to learn about diversity and anti-racism. But while overt racism is a problem in the police force, I don’t think anti-racism work would have necessarily saved the lives of Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.
Overt racism isn’t the only race problem we have in policing. More subtle and in some ways more powerful forces are at work around race. Systemic racism plays a huge part in the interactions between police and the public. For years the policies and practices of our country have divided people based on skin color. For decades we kept people with white skin and people with dark skin from being neighbors. Today on the books it is illegal to deny someone housing based upon race, but in practice black citizens are still more likely to live in predominately black, predominately poor, violent, “inner city” neighborhoods with failing schools.
Even the best meaning police officers aren’t eager to be assigned patrols in black neighborhoods. Officers often describe feeling “on edge” in these areas, and that stress can lead to bad judgement, even by officers who don’t hold overtly racist opinions. Conscious or unconscious, overt or systemic, race plays a part in how people are policed, and how people perceive policing in our country. Our neighborhoods are not created equal, and they are policed unequally.
At the same time we cannot ignore the role that firearms played in this week’s deaths. At least purportedly, both officers fired because they believed the man they had stopped was reaching for a gun. As I said, I saw those videos in London. While we were there, I was reminded that the majority of police officers in the United Kingdom don’t carry guns. They don’t have to. The UK has some of the lowest gun ownership rates per capita in the world. Criminals are unlikely to have access to a firearm, so most police don’t need guns to do their job. In the United States many police organizations have endorsed gun control precisely because our police officers would be safer if there were fewer guns on the street.
Gun control could have made a big difference in Dallas. If you have been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Services, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you have had complaints of domestic violence, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you have a diagnosed mental illness, you should not be able to buy a gun. If you’ve been on a terrorism watch list, you should not be able to be a gun. Our streets would be safer. Our communities would be safer. Our police officers would be safer.
If we want to make meaningful progress around policing and race, I believe we must literally disarm the conversation. If black lives matter, if police lives matter, we have to stop the flow of guns onto our streets.
It is impossible to see someone as your neighbor when you’re worried about what they might do with their gun.
This disarmament, this conversation, will take time. We spent centuries exploiting the labor of black bodies in this country. As a country we spent decades keeping black bodies out of white neighborhoods. It will take a long time to unpick this knot. History will remember this week. Will we remember this week as a week when we realized we needed to reach out to our neighbors and worked to change the systems that divide and oppress? Will we remember this summer as the season we finally got serious about gun control?
As I thought this week about neighbors and policing, a funny realization came to me. I am one of those white kids that grew up in the suburbs. Part of that privilege means that I don’t remember police officers on the streets as a kid. But I do have a vivid childhood image of a police officer. He was on TV, specifically, he lived in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.
Mr. Roger’s theme song may be a bit like the story of the “Good Samaritan.” We’ve heard “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor” so many times, the message may have worn a little thin. But Mr. Rogers, who was an ordained Presbyterian minister, found ways to teach Jesus’ radical lessons.
Officer Francois Clemmons was played by an actor who was also named Francois Clemmons. He was the first black character to have a recurring role on an American children’s television show. In an NPR interview this year Clemmons recalled Fred Rogers approaching him after hearing him sing in church to say, “I have this idea you could play a police officer.”
Clemmons wasn’t eager at first: “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people,” he says. “And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all.”
But he came around. In 1969 Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers recorded a scene that on the surface seems incredibly simple. As camera zooms in Mr. Rogers is sitting with his feet in a wading pool on a hot summer’s day. He invites Officer Clemmons to take a break from walking his beat to join him. Simple, until you
remember that this was 1969. In St. Louis black kids weren’t allowed in the white pool. They sing a song together and then Officer Clemmons has to get back to work, so Mr. Roger’s helps him dry his feet. Pastor Rogers found a way to sneak the washing of feet into his television show. Radical.
Officer Clemmons quietly challenged the children who watched the Mr. Rogers show. For the white kids in the suburbs, he challenged the idea that they shouldn’t be sharing a pool with a black people. For the black kids in the city, he presented them with a friendly singing police officer, someone you could trust to keep you safe and teach a valuable lesson. The friendship on screen told kids “This black man, this police officer, he is my neighbor. He can be your neighbor too.”
Who is my neighbor? This question is at the heart of this painful week. Who is my neighbor? This question is at the heart of our journey as followers of Jesus. Do we have the courage to see beyond our assumptions, our cliques, our prejudices? Do we have the courage to expand our vision? Please, won’t you be, my neighbor?