Who became a neighbor? Reading Black Lives Matter through the Good Samaritan
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.”
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 experienced by 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.”