#BlackLivesMatter and the Good Samaritan: VIII Pentecost (Proper 10C)
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
Many of you have been Christians for a lot longer than I have, and have heard dozens of sermons on the Good Samaritan parable. My guess is that you have heard a preacher talk about how Jesus’ story challenges racism between Jews and Samaritans. Our neighbors can be anyone whom God made, not just our own color, kin, and kind.
On a day like today, it might seem appropriate to preach a sermon like that.
Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, LA this week.
Philando Castile was killed by police in St. Paul, MN this week.
Five police officers were killed and seven more injured in Dallas this week.
But something needs to be altered about that interpretation of the Gospel text. We are not able to make a direct connection between Good Samaritan and race relations in USA
Usually the preacher says something like this: Jews and Samaritans hated one another; blacks and whites hate one another. Jewish lawyer didn't want to consider everyone a neighbor; whites and blacks in America often don't want to associate (for many years, segregation laws made doing so illegal). Jesus pushed Jewish lawyer past his prejudice by teaching him to imitate a Samaritan; whites and blacks can reconcile like this through Christ
But this is overly simplistic. It misses important differences between contexts of 1st century Palestine and 21st century USA.
Jews and Samaritans generally did hate each other, but for vastly different reasons than white-black tension in US.
1) Jews and Samaritans started as equals
Jews and Samaritans used to be one people, the united kingdom of Israel, under Kings David and Solomon. They split up during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam (c. 900 BC) in what was basically a Civil War (or secession). For the next few centuries, Southern kingdom (Judah, later Jews) and Northern Kingdom (Israel, later Samaritans) shifted from allies to enemies numerous times. Frequently at war, sometimes with each other.
Between OT and NT period, several wars and war crimes between Jews and Samaritans, but neither has the upper hand for very long. Brief periods of independence, but none lasted long.
2) Jews and Samaritans were both oppressed peoples
“Samaritans” conquered first. They were overtaken by Assyrian Empire in the 700s BC. Assyrian policy was to forcibly move conquered people so that they lost their original cultural and ethnic identity. New people from other lands came to northern Israel. Samaritans of NT era are therefore descendants of Israelites and “foreigners” -- changed some core Jewish worship practices and considered heretical by southern Jews (i.e. around Jerusalem).
Southern Jews were also conquered over 100 years later in 500s, but this time by the Babylonians. No ethnic mixing in this empire; just exile for all the wealthy and talented (brought to Babylon for 70 years or so, until Babylon was conquered by Persia).
By the time we get to NT era, both people groups are ruled by Roman Empire. Neither is free, both hate each other.
How is our current context different?
Whites and Blacks in USA never had a history of equality.
The reason they co-exist in one land is becuase of European imperialism. Neither white people nor black people are from here. Europeans chose to come to pursue wealth and power. Blacks were stolen from their homelands and forced to America as slaves.
Whites have oppressed blacks; Not a shared story of oppression
From Middle Passage to chattel slavery to Jim Crow and segregation to ghettoization and police brutality, those with African heritage have continually been maligned throughout 400 years in North America.
Why does this matter for reading the Gospel today?
In the simple version, where Good Samaritan is just like USA, the reasons for separation are simply historical. They have to do with our ancestors and their wars. There is little for us to overcome in the present, no obstacles in the way of our reconciliation apart from a few people’s stubbornness and prejudice.
But, in America today, I argue that we need more than conversions of the mind or the heart. We can't just wash over our conflicts with contrite thoughts or mushy feelings. People are dying everyday because of our nation’s racist and colonialist heritage. And there cannot be reconciliation without justice and equality. The oppressed cannot forgive the oppressor while she is still in chains.
The problem is not a few lone ranger racists out there who fly under the radar in police academies. It’s not a handful of rotten bigots spoiling the rest of the pot.
It’s all of us who live in this culture and are formed and shaped by its doctrines. All of us are taught from the earliest age that white people are good and trustworthy and black people are scary and dangerous.
White supremacy infects all of our minds to greater and lesser degrees. These mentalities are not just nasty thoughts, but the manifest in the world through violence and degradation against people of color. This is why we have to fight for the world to recognize that black lives matter. So much out there speaks to the contrary.
Our response to this travesty will be prayer, but it must be more. We must stand up and demand equality and justice in a land that refuses to deliver those. And we must do our part as church to model the unity and justice that we want from the world.
No easy fixes or answers, but What we can draw from the Gospel text to influence our response is this:
“Which of these three seems to you to (have) become a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ [hands]?” (Luke 10:36)
The Samaritan became the injured man’s neighbor. He was not a neighbor to him through friendship or kin, not by national, ethnic, or cultural identity. The compassion he felt and the mercy he showed transformed their relationship. Once they were strangers, even enemies, but now they are neighbors.
The process of becoming neighbors, of joining people with violent, tragic histories begins with mercy.
Our mercy despite our pain can show the world a different sort of response. Our firm but peaceful demands for equality can open the hearts of the ugliest oppressors. Our fervent prayers and advocacy for all people can show the world that black and brown peoples are worthy every ounce of dignity and honor we can muster. For black lives matter to God.