Who became a neighbor? Reading Black Lives Matter through the Good Samaritan

People take part in a prayer vigil at Thanksgiving Square, Friday, July 8, 2016, in Dallas.. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

At Mass most days, and especially on Sundays, the readings are what they are and no changes are made. Find your place in the lectionary and there you are. Yet often enough, through some kind of providence, the readings meet us where we are and call us to where we need to be.

Today, they find us on the road to Jericho, where a man was waylaid by robbers, avoided by the good religious people and rescued by a despised Samaritan the whole world has now learned to call “good.”

Advertisement

The connection between the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Black Lives Matter movement first occurred to me a year and half ago as I was writing for The Jesuit Post following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Today, the lectionary challenges me with it again.

The scholar of the law, who “wished to justify himself” heard the call to love his neighbor as himself and responded by asking Jesus “and who is my neighbor?”

And Jesus gave one of the great non-answers of the Gospel. The parable concludes instead with a question: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?”

Not “who is my neighbor?” but rather “Who became a neighbor to the victim?

This is what the preferential option for the poor means: to pose the questions of the Kingdom of God from the perspective of the marginalized and disenfranchised and to cooperate in God’s work of making its promises real for them.

Who became a neighbor to the victim?

Who crossed that dangerous road to Jericho toward the beaten and bleeding man, rather than away from him?

I have the privilege of pointing this out with words, without being anywhere near that road. I don’t have to cross to the other side to avoid the victim; I can see him, and pass him by, behind the glass of a car window or the glow of a smartphone screen.

If Jesus in the Gospel calls me to become a neighbor, the first step is to get out on the road.

I don’t, at this moment, have a concrete plan for doing that, and all sorts of excuses present themselves to avoid making such plans. Some of the excuses are better than others. None of them are good enough.

Maybe I can start by reading things that challenge my comfortable ignorance. Or learn by example, grateful for the men and women in blue who crossed roads in Dallas, running toward gunfire for the sake of protesters. Honor their courage by not setting it against a call to greater solidarity, and stop being silent when people do.

Taking up the challenge of Black Lives Matter means, at a minimum, choosing better policies to address the disparity experienced by black people in the use of force by police. Those policies—some of which the Dallas police department has embraced—will make a big difference, but it will take more than that to dismantle the structures of racism. Those of us who can ignore those structures have to learn to recognize them for the scandal they are, and we won’t be able just to teach ourselves.

The parable Jesus tells again today confronts white people like myself the same way it confronted the scholar of the law. It forces us, as it did him, to see that we who have the option of crossing the road must not only root out but call out all the self-defensive reactions in ourselves and in others that would silence the robbers’ victim.

Today, in our society, this means paying attention to the threats to black lives as they are experiencedby black people. We need to learn that the insufficiency of our good intentions and personal non-racism is not a rejection of their goodness, but a call to solidarity in a struggle led by others.

There are many roads to Jericho in the world today, but our country keeps winding up on this one, and I expect we will continue to until more of us have heard and been convicted by Jesus’ response in today’s parable.

We can’t be satisfied with having the right answer to “and who is my neighbor?” Or even with having the right answer to Jesus’ question about who became a neighbor. The scholar of the law gets that one right, in the end, answering “The one who treated him with mercy.”

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea
1 year 10 months ago
Great article. I am reading "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" by Ibram X. Kendi and am learning a lot about what I thought I already knew.
J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
The Good Samaritans in the Black Community are the police. The following statistic should be an eye opener.
a police officer is 18-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is likely to be killed by a police officer.
They are in the Black community helping them from crimes being committed there against blacks. That is why so many police officers are killed. Everyone should read Heather MacDonald's book
"The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe"
Here is the link to the book http://amzn.to/29DZFl0
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 10 months ago

I agree that very often police are acting as Good Samaritans. I think that's all the more reason to support good policing and work to reduce or eliminate the use of force that minority communities feel disproportionately (and apparently from the data, also experience in encounters with police far more commonly than whites, even after taking more frequent black contact with police into account).

I also wonder about how that 18.5 times statistic is constructed, especially because in 2015, the number of police who died by gunfire was 42 while the number of people shot by police was 990, of whom 258 were black. Maybe it means something like a police officer who was killed was more likely to have been killed by a black male than an unarmed black male who was killed was likely to have been killed by a police officer? It's a weird statistic, because it compares a lot of non-police-involved situations in which black people get killed with the rarer situations in which police get killed, but treats the likelihood of a black person being involved in each one as if it's somehow meaningful comparable.

The statistics here are complicated, and hard to understand in part because they really aren't systematically collected, so it's almost impossible to say if there's a trend in one direction or another or what could be causing it.

I don't think we have to choose between valuing what the police do and taking seriously the claims of black people who tell us that the negative effects of police use of force are a significant burden on black communities.  In fact, I think that the importance of listening to the people who experience the burden is only increased by valuing what the police do.

J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Fr. Sawyer, See the comment above which explains the statistics. Yes, they are a little labored but they emphasize the point. The point is that there isn't excessive use of force by the police and that is the claim made. So the claim is a lie. Actually cops are less likely to use deadly force against blacks, http://wapo.st/1TCzRQ8 Why isn't this the meme in the news? That is the interesting question.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 10 months ago

Actually, after a reading a lot of different analyses of the various (and often conflicting) data, I think the interesting question is how to know which analysis to pick.

But I'll stand by the idea that taking seriously what black people tell us about the experience of racism is a good place to start.

J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Fr. Sawyer,
But I'll stand by the idea that taking seriously what black people tell us about the experience of racism is a good place to start.
Maybe there are other black people who are crying for more police protection and what has happened is that a vocal few are driving the narrative. The result has been less protection as the police are reacting to the politicians reaction to the press. Again read the MacDonald book for an alternative point of view.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 10 months ago
"The War on Cops…Makes Everyone Less Safe." Is “the war on cops” one of the NRA’s signature demographics? NRA aligned states have a 30% higher police fatality rate than states supporting gun regulation.
Rick Malloy
1 year 10 months ago
Great reflection Sam. I shared the story of Natasha Howell and a Police officer in my homilies this weekend (see my tweet @frmalloy). We've got a long way to go and we need to walk on both sides of the street. There are hurting people on both sides. - Rick Malloy, S.J.
Tim Carey
1 year 10 months ago
Mr Cosgrove, 965 people were killed by law enforcement in 2015 per The Washington Post. 60% of those were either black or Hispanic. In the same year 130 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. Those numbers come from the Officers Down Memorial Page. Of those 130, 27 officers died on duty as a result of illness/heart attack and 39 died from gunshot wounds. I think you are missing the point of the article.
J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Mr. Carey, The numbers are right. This issue is unarmed black men killed by police which is supposedly the point of contention in the Black community. In 2015 there were 36 instances and the data does not show the race of police person causing the death. There are about 19 million black males or there is a rate of 0.0000018 unarmed black males killed by the police. This is a very small percentage or 0.00018 percent. Heather MacDonald has a whole chapter on the shooting of unarmed blacks in her book. There are approximately 628,000 full time law enforcement people in the US in 2015. A much smaller population than the black male population. About 1/30 of the black male population. Of these in 2015, 56 total were killed and it is estimated that about 21 were killed by blacks. This 0.0033% Or about 18.5 times the rate of unarmed black men being killed by the police. Though the numbers are small, it is much more likely a policeman will be killed by a black male then an unarmed black male killed by a policeman. The point of this is that the narrative of Black Lives Matter is based on lies. There are other statistics that also completely undermine their claims. Yet they are given credence in the media and Dallas is what one gets due to these lies.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 10 months ago

The issue is the disproportionate experience of the use of force by the police in black communities; the death of unarmed black men in police encounters is only the flashpoint. A better way of putting the question—since the two deaths this week that led to the protests in Dallas in which the police were tragically shot involved legally armed black men—might be about unjustified or unnecessary death of black men in encounters with police.

And there we don't know, because the data hasn't been gathered well or systematically and the questions of justification and necessity are fraught.

But it is strange to me that you seem to be so ready to conclude that there's no problem, or that "the narrative of Black Lives Matter is based on lies," when so many people who claim to actually have experienced the negative effects of police use of force in black communities are speaking up about it. Especially when the statistics you cite are partial, complicated, and don't address the whole question that BLM is raising. Not to mention that quoting the multiplier between two rates which are both smaller than one one-hundreth of one percent is strange and not terribly persuasive to begin with.

It can be (and I think is) true both that the police deserve our respect and admiration and also that there are structural problems in how minority communities experience law enforcement activity. Why do you feel like the latter has to be false?

J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Fr. Sawyer,
quoting the multiplier between two rates which are both smaller than one one-hundreth of one percent is strange and not terribly persuasive to begin with.
That is the point, the unarmed deaths are incredibly small. Why isn't this point made? The shooting of unarmed black men is even more minuscule percentage given all the interactions that take place between policeman and black males. And even in some of these deaths, the issue is murky because some of the deaths are cases where the person shot was assaulting the policeman trying to take his gun. MacDonald has a whole chapter on this topic. I suggest you read the book and come to your own conclusions. It could be on your tablet or computer in minutes and is an easy read. Also if the perception doesn't match the reality, then that should be the story. Not feeding the misperceptiosn.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 10 months ago

I'll look at the book. May I suggest in turn that you spend some time reading some testimony from activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and considering whether or not the broader questions about disproportionate experience of police use of force are troubling enough to be taken seriously? (And also consider retracting the accusation that the movement is based on lies?)

J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Fr. Sawyer, I hope you read the book. I am having trouble finding specific claims by Black Lives Matter that are truthful and relevant. Maybe you could help. I have been to their website and read the Wikipedia article on them. They say
Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.
Obviously not true since you yourself pointed to the fact that the number of unarmed black men killed was extremely small and not persuasive. So one of their claims is really trivial. If there were a systematic targeting, the numbers would not be so incredibly small The Black Lives Matter continually bring up Michael Brown and the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" which never happened. Maybe you could help with other claims. As far as solving the problem of crime in the Black community, there is no easy answer especially since no one in the liberal establishment wants to address the root causes which if there is any white fault it is with the liberal white members of our society. See http://bit.ly/29FGdBN for the real causes of problems in the Black community. It is not white racism except with those who refuse to address the root causes. And nearly all of these people are on the left of our political spectrum. When has America Magazine addressed this issue? The silence on this site is deafening. You would think that would be the essential discussion instead of the reflexively anti-gun rhetoric. Just out this morning on police tactics by race http://nyti.ms/29vbdkQ There is a bias by race on use of force but not use of guns. But the bias on use of force is there is not egregiously more prevalent
In officer-involved shootings in these cities, officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white. Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon. Both of these results undercut the idea that the police wield lethal force with racial bias.
Sam Sawyer, S.J.
1 year 10 months ago

When you say things like "it is not white racism except with those who refuse to address the root causes," then it seems that you are foreclosing the discussion without having listened seriously to the questions being raised.

I don't doubt that the problems are more complicated than some in the Black Lives Matter movement might portray them, nor am I saying that their protests are beyond reproach. I am saying we ought to listen to them and try to hear their concerns from the perspective of the people who are marginalized and suffering, which is one of the things meant by the preferential option for the poor.

And while I hope I am not being uncharitable here, you seem to have come into this comments thread eager to dismiss and correct the reports of people who tell us they are suffering.

I think we need to take the effects of implicit and structural racism, and the way they are felt by black people, much more seriously than we have—or than you currently are. This piece (which I also linked above) I think does a great job of helping to explain why.

In general, I think it's a better starting place to be less ready to tell black people why the real problems are not what they say they are, and more ready to take seriously the idea that they encounter problems we may not readily see.

J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Fr. Sawyer,
When you say things like "it is not white racism except with those who refuse to address the root causes," then it seems that you are foreclosing the discussion without having listened seriously to the questions being raised.
If anything you are foreclosing the discussion by trying to steer the discussion into an area that will bear little fruit for the black community. I have been reading about this for years and am alway willing to learn more. I have no doubt that those in the black community have dreadful existences. But the question is what caused this situation and how to address it. Shaming or blaming policemen is at best a distraction/diversion and serves the purpose of appearing to addressing a problem when the real problem is somewhere else. It is like prescribing a pain killer for cancer. Only a temporary and superficial treatment. I have shown to you that violence by policemen is in reality a non issue even if in fact the average black believes it is so. The question is why this false perception? But even that is a distraction because it will focus resources and attitudes away from the real problem which as I said not one of the authors on this site addresses. So I believe your characterization is off. Let's go after the cancer.
Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago
Which cases were they where the person shot was assaulting the policeman?
J Cosgrove
1 year 10 months ago
Mr, Klahn, The most publicized case is Michael Brown from Ferguson, Missouri. Brown assaulted a police officer and tried to take the police officer's gun. The police officer subsequently shot him as Brown continued his attack on the police officer. This led to months of riots based on the false report that Brown was shot while surrendering while he was actually attacking the police officer at the time. The "Hands up, don't shoot" meme was a lie but is still used today to indicate this incident. Why isn't every time this expression used challenged by the press? There are others. But the fact is that these incidents of unarmed black men are incredibly small compared to the number of interactions between the police and black males. If there was a systematic pattern of targeting blacks by police with violence, then they are extremely inept at it. Read the MacDonald book to learn more about the problems of both police/black statistics and what the demonizing of police does for the black community. It actually makes blacks less safe. Here is the link to the book http://amzn.to/29DZFl0 and here is a video on the sheer number of police encounters each year in the country. http://bit.ly/29VExno
Robert Klahn
1 year 10 months ago
How many of those police officers were killed by unarmed black men? The narrative is not based on lies. How many of the black men who killed police officers were given a free pass? I decided Pat Buchanan is a racist after he wrote a column justifying profiling of black people based on the probability of a black person killing a police officer. This was decades ago, but I haven't seen a reason to change my decision yet. A week later the FBI released their profile of a typical cop killer, a white male 18-35 high on drugs or alcohol. You rank blacks killing of police against all blacks. BLM counts it against unarmed black men, black people who are not a threat. That is the difference you miss.
Chuck Kotlarz
1 year 10 months ago
Fr. Sawyer, your “road to Jericho homily” brings to mind a “road to Emmaus homily” by Fr. Walter Modrys, SJ. Fr. Modrys gave the homily for a 9/11 memorial mass at Saint Ignatius Loyola Church on Manhattan’s upper east side.
Vince Killoran
1 year 10 months ago
Indeed, black Americans suffer a higher rate of killing at the hands of police than white Americans (and other ethnic/racial groups). There is remarkable unevenness, however, across the USA. Let's read more about "model cities." No comment needed from me about last week's two killings since the full investigation has not yet be completed. Anything just now would be pathos and conjecture.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Tuesday, May 22, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
The Secretary of Education stirred up controversy when she said it was up to schools to decide if an undocumented student should be reported to authorities.
J.D. Long-GarcíaMay 25, 2018
Thousands gathered in Dublin May 12 to say "Love Both" and "Vote No" to abortion on demand. They were protesting abortion on demand in the forthcoming referendum May 25. (CNS photo/John McElroy)
“Priests and bishops get verbal abuse by being told, ‘How can you speak for women? You don’t know what it’s like!’”
America StaffMay 25, 2018
The coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII is seen during a ceremony in Vittorio Veneto Square after its arrival in Bergamo, Italy, May 24. The body of the late pope left the Vatican on May 24 to be displayed in his home region until June 10. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

BERGAMO, Italy (CNS) — Accompanied by Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo and escorted by both Italian and Vatican police officers, the glass coffin containing the body of St. John XXIII left the Vatican early on May 24 for a 370-mile drive to Bergamo.

On this week's episode, we talk with Lieutenant Governor of Washington State, Cyrus Habib.
Olga SeguraMay 25, 2018