Come Closer: the Good Samaritan, Black Lives Matter, and Feeling the Pain of Others

When I think about the victim in today’s Gospel,
the man wounded and abandoned on the side of a road…
when I think about this man who had fallen into the hands of robbers…
robbers who stripped him,
beat him,
and went away,
leaving him half dead…
I can’t help but wonder how many other men, women, and children
had faced similar brutality on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
For the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a dangerous 18-mile trek
through steep, dry, hot, barren terrain.
It was terrain that was well known for harboring bandits.
Yet people still needed to make the journey, in spite of the risk of terror.

How many times before,
and how many times after this had a person been left for dead
in a ditch on the side of the Jericho road?
And how often had those passing these bruised, battered bodies
just kept on walking,
afraid for their own safety?
Kept on walking
because they had families waiting for them
at the other end of their journey.
Kept on walking because
they were just too hot and tired and thirsty
to do anything but put
one foot in front of the other
until they reached their destination?

More often than not,
I would guess,
people just kept on walking.
The priest and the Levite and all the others probably felt guilty,
of course,
but intervening usually just felt too risky and too vulnerable.

Rather than villainizing the priest and the Levite, then,
I find myself mostly unsurprised by their capacity
to ignore someone in distress.
I probably wouldn’t have stopped, either.
Very few of us would respond as the Samaritan did.
Because we mostly tend to stay on the sidelines,
where it’s safe,
and where we’re less likely to get caught up
in other people’s drama and other people’s pain.

The call of the Gospel however, is a call to shift our attention:
from a focus on self to a focus on other;
from love only of self,
to loving our neighbor as ourself.

And it is a radical call.
As the Samaritan shows us,
loving our neighbor as ourself
will often involve time, and resources, and money.
It will almost always involve sacrifice of one kind or another.
And most of us, I daresay, would prefer an easier Gospel.
A Gospel of ideas rather than actions.
A Gospel more oriented toward our minds than our bodies.
But this is not the Gospel we have.
Instead, we have a Gospel that is profoundly interested in bodies.
And most profoundly interested in hurting bodies.
And, as we have seen yet again this week,
the bodies of many of our Black brothers and sisters
are wounded and hurting.
Which means that the Body of Christ is wounded and hurting.
Which means that God is weeping
and begging us to repent of our racism and re-discover our human kinship.
God is calling us to love our neighbors as ourselves
and also showing us that our neighborhoods are wider and broader
than we would have ever expected or chosen.
Our neighbor, Jesus seems to be telling us,
is anyone who is hurting or in need.

Which means that as this week has evolved,
we’ve also discovered that police officers and their families
are our neighbors.
Today, in the same breath, then,
I will proclaim that Black Lives Matter
that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s lives matter,
while also mourning the deaths of 5 police officers in Dallas.
These police officers – Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens – matter, too!
Yet I will always and everywhere proclaim that Black Lives Matter,
rather than that All Lives Matter.

Because the Gospel points us specifically to wounded bodies,
and Black bodies are disproportionately wounded in this nation.
So this is where we must place our attention and our focus.
Because if we can find a way to honor and dignify Black lives,
we’ll be well on our way to honoring the dignity of every human person.
We must start where the pain and inequity are the greatest.

It’s so very difficult for so many of us, especially white folks,
to begin to wrap our minds around the dynamics
of racism and white privilege.
I think this is because white people tend to focus on interpersonal racism.
Many of us try hard not to say or do explicitly racist things,
so we feel offended when white people are blanketly labeled as racist.
But we have to remember is that racism
is so much more than the sum total of interpersonal acts.
Racism is deeply embedded
in our systems and structures and institutions
in such a way that it is nearly invisible to many white people,
and in such a way that it can function almost autonomously,
without anyone’s conscious malicious intent.
The inherent bias of our systems has thereby come to seem normal
and even inevitable.

Living in the midst of such a system, then,
a system that privileges white people
and that allows white people to think that we deserve our advantages,
where does change begin?
When we see our Black brothers and sisters bleeding
on the side of the road,
held down and brutalized by structural racism,
how are we called to respond?

I want to suggest, to begin,
that I don’t think we are called to respond by feeling guilty.
A white, United Methodist pastor,
the Reverend Hannah Adair Bonner,
wrote the following about white guilt,
slightly adapted here,
in an essay published this past week:
[White people who feel guilty] “may not take any action,
but at least we can look at other white people
and think to ourselves: at least I feel guilty,
[which] makes me better than those people over there
who [don’t really seem to] care.
Yet, [in feeling guilty],
we have not actually done anything to change the situation.
In many cases, we have actually added a burden to people of color
by acting sad and mopey and expecting them to cheer us up
by telling us [that] we are the good kind of white people.”

Reverend Bonner continues:
“White guilt keeps white people focused on ourselves.
Instead, social change will come through the acceptance of responsibility and the resulting action that seeks to alleviate the pain of others,
rather than remaining focused on our own.”

I myself have spent so much of the relatively limited energy
that I expend on social justice feeling guilty and ashamed.
Because guilt allows me to fool myself
into thinking that I’ve actually done something.
But what it really does is paralyze me in fear and inaction.

As part of a desire to begin to transform my complacency, then,
I found myself compelled to join a protest march
this past Thursday evening.
I was surprised to find myself moved off of the sidelines,
even in such a relatively easy and not-too-risky way.
Because I like to be comfortable.
And because my whiteness largely permits me to be passive
in the face of the world’s injustices,
so many of which are clearly and demonically racialized.
But I have never quite been comfortable with my tendency toward passivity.
Indeed: for several years now, Jesus has been poking and prodding me
to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
And yet, I’ve continued to mostly sit on the sidelines.
But finally, FINALLY, something in me seemed to crack open this week.

Gathering in front of the Convention Center,
I joined with hundreds of Philadelphians of all colors and cultures,
along with hundreds of members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
who were gathered together in Philadelphia,
from all across the nation,
for their denomination’s General Conference.

We marched to protest this week’s killing
of two more Black men by police officers,
this time in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

We marched to say aloud the names
of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile,
and to give motion and voice to our collective grief and anger.

We marched to lament the racism that plagues our nation,
and we marched because we want to undo racism.

We marched because we have found ourselves unable to continue to “pass by on the other side” as African-American communities are terrorized by police violence.

At the end of the march,
we filled every seat in Arch Street United Methodist Church.
The prayers and the testimonies were powerful.
The desire – the craving – for justice was powerful.
And as I witnessed the collective grief of the predominantly Black assembly,
I began to realize that in so many ways,
I have not yet begun to treat African Americans as my neighbors.
I have not yet come close enough to really understand
the oppression and injustice faced by African Americans.
I have contented myself with cursory understandings of issues
like police brutality and mass incarceration.

In a poignant editorial, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson
calls white people to account for the dehumanizing mentality that enables our “passing by on the other side,” saying:

“If you do not know us, you also refuse to hear us because you do not believe what we say. You have decided that enough is enough. If the cops must kill us for no good reason, then so be it because most of us are guilty anyway. If the Black person that they kill turns out to be innocent, it is an acceptable death, a sacrificial one.”

But is there really any acceptable death?
In many ways, we are still living in exactly the same world
as the Good Samaritan.
It is still mostly acceptable to walk past our neighbors in pain,
our neighbors who are dying.
It is still mostly acceptable to value their lives less than ours.

Yet, we if want to reap the full fruit of what the Gospel promises us
we have to let it change our hearts,
open our eyes,
and move our feet.
Jesus calls us to push beyond disregard for the suffering of others.
He asks us to take the revolutionary step of moving toward the pain,
toward the victim, toward the danger.
He tells us of a Good Samaritan who comes close,
draws near, gets involved.

Likewise, then,
I think we are being called to draw near to those lives
that are being brutalized by racism.
We must keep drawing nearer
until we can see the truth of what our Black brothers and sisters
have been telling us for so long.
They have been telling us about their problems,
but we have not been able to hear or see.
And what is the problem?

Purdue professor Roxane Gay summarizes:
“Law enforcement [that is] militarized and indifferent to Black lives, is the problem. Law enforcement that sees Black people as criminals rather than human beings with full and deserving lives is the problem. A justice system that rarely prosecutes or convicts police officers who kill innocent people in the line of duty is the problem.”

If we cannot see that this is a problem,
we’re probably not quite close enough yet.

The Gospel invites us to get closer.
Jesus is trying to prod us closer.
Won’t you come closer?
Won’t you draw near?
Will you feel the pain of a Black brother or sister
in the way you feel the pain of Jesus
hanging from the Cross on Good Friday?
Will you come closer?
Will you draw near?
And will you be changed because of what you have seen and hear?
Come near: the Kingdom of God is at hand.

May it be so. Amen.

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