What must I do to live – really, fully live as God intends? the lawyer asked Jesus. You know what to do, Jesus told the man. Love. Love God. Love yourself. Love your neighbor. But Jesus also reminded this seeker that there is no such thing as love in the abstract. He gave the man a story to put flesh on love, to make love specific, and complicated. Love, said Jesus, is by definition, a moral dilemma, a quagmire of hard choices. Love, Jesus insisted, has a real cost.
I’m thinking about the man who was beaten and robbed in Jesus’ story, wondering who he was. I find it interesting that everyone else in the story got a label, a social location: the Priest, the Levite, the Samaritan. But this man has no name, no category. We don’t know what he did for a living, what color his skin was, or what religion he practiced. We don’t know if he had a family. We don’t know where he was headed before he was attacked. All we know is that he was hurt, so badly wounded he was closer to death than life.
What a terrible, terrible week this has been. In Bagdad and Baton Rouge. In Falcon Heights and North Minneapolis. In Dallas, oh in Dallas. I see us, all of us, in that man lying beside the road, lingering between life and death.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t notice a broken taillight on my car unless someone pointed it out to me. I’d rather have it be a friend or family member, instead of the police. It’s inconvenient to get stopped. It’s a bummer to get a ticket. But the thing is, I can be absolutely sure, that because of the color of my skin, that if an officer did stop me, it would be an inconvenient bummer not a death sentence. This minor traffic violation would not bring the end of my family’s world. My daughters would not have live with the trauma of that day forever. My spouse would not be arrested and held and separated from our children.
Let’s tell the truth – the whole truth. For centuries, people with black and brown skin have been systematically beaten and robbed and left for dead. The oppression of people of color has not ended, but continued to be reborn in ever new disguises. They are that wounded traveler, so badly hurt that they are closer to death than life.
I watched the video of Philando Castille bleeding in his car. As the very life seeped out of him and stained his shirt, one of the officers continued to train his gun on him. What I saw in that moment was incredible fear, lethally mixed with power. I know what it is because it lives in me too. I call out the flaws of our policing system: inadequate training, lack of community oversight, not enough voices demanding change from within, a justice system that utterly fails to hold police officers accountable for the misuse of force. And, at the same time, I recognize that these failings are symptoms of a yet deeper problem for which I am responsible: the sin of white supremacy.
Reggie Williams, professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, writes…“normal humanity, regulative humanity, or template humanity is white humanity. That is the enduring ideology of white supremacy: white as normal humanity.” “Race is a myth biologically, but it is a political reality.” “The power of white-as-normal is so common that it regulates social and political structures, often without participants recognizing that they are its willing disciples. White-as-normal shapes what is believed to be civilized behavior. Historical depictions of Jesus and of God as white render this regulating practice as sacred, giving religious justification to the normative role of whiteness.” http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-06/seeing-whiteness
Now, I know the police officer who shot Philando Castille was not white. But a reality of systems of oppression is that they maintain power by setting marginalized groups against each other, and by teaching oppressed people to “internalize” the hatred and violence, to turn it in upon themselves. No matter who pulled the trigger, those of us who are white bear a particular responsibility for uprooting the force of unconscious bias that imprisons us all in a false and immoral view of the world. We are the ones who hold the most power and therefore the ones who are the most responsible for acting to bring the violence of white supremacy to an end.
You see, white folks are that man by the side of the road too. White people are not hurting for the same reasons or to the same degree, but they do bear a deep, generational moral trauma that stems from their role in maintaining oppression.
In Jesus’ story, action was called for. A man was bleeding to death. The Priest and Levite saw the wounds of humanity, but they passed by on the other side of the road. They passed by, refusing to get in involved, with their religious authority, their social power, their moral voice. They had other concerns. They were not willing to get their hands dirty with something as specific and complicated and messy and ambiguous as this man bleeding all over the place. Jesus wanted the lawyer to understand that this kind of faith is a distortion. Complacency and silence is complicity in oppression, and does not represent God’s hopes and intentions for us.
The Samaritan was the one who demonstrated love – real, embodied love. He poured oil and wine on the wounds of the injured one. He bandaged them. He took the man to an inn so that he could receive healing care. The language Jesus used to characterize the Samaritan’s heart and actions is significant. The Samaritan was moved by pity, or, in some translations, compassion. He showed mercy. In the Gospel of Luke, these are divine qualities. The lawyer, with his question, “who is my neighbor?”seemed to be looking for permission to place limits on love. Jesus instead offered him a role model for love that is without boundaries. He pointed to the Samaritan, a despised and persecuted enemy, and said: here is your teacher. Here is what a neighbor does. And here is what God’s love looks like, made flesh in us.
Jesus’ story doesn’t shy away from the cost of love. There is an obvious, significant financial cost to the Samaritan, both in the money he paid to the innkeeper for the man’s care, and in the time he lost on his journey. There is also the cost of personal danger. It doesn’t seem unlikely that while the Samaritan was absorbed in tending the man’s wounds, the robbers might return to rob and beat again.
Love, and healing, and life, also has a cost for us. Moving past paralyzing guilt and shame into responsibility, accountability and change brings an emotional and spiritual cost. Repairing the material harm of white supremacy –the theft of land, labor, and life that created the society we live in today— has an undeniable financial cost. There is a cost, in the work of confronting white supremacy, to our relationships, our reputation and perhaps our safety. The shooter in Dallas and the violent disrupters at last night’s protest, remind us how the direction action of peaceful protest can be hijacked by those who intend to inflict further harm.
Even so, despite our pain and confusion today, I have great hope. I have hope because I know that our God is love. Active love. Love made flesh, specific and complicated love. Love that is willing to enter into our moral dilemmas, our quagmire of hard choices. God is the power of a love that can heal and restore us all — even as we are lying by the side of the road lingering between life and death. God is love that is willing to pay the cost of our liberation.