Samuel K. Sarpiya, moderator of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, has shared this reflection in response to the weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va. This is the first in a series of reflections on the 2018 Conference theme, “Living Parables”:
“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?’” (Luke 10:25-29)
And who is my neighbor?
Jesus did not answer this question with a radius measured in cubits. Nor did he reference tribe or ancestral connections. Instead, he told a parable. The parable of the Good Samaritan referenced the “identity politics” and “culture wars” of the day. It is a story that challenges who is doing the holy work of God--the priest, who passed by; the Levite, an assistant to the priest who passed by; or the Samaritan who was only half-Jewish and traditionally did not interact with Jewish people but helped the man who had been robbed.
Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
We are still seeking how to answer Christ’s question. As the lawyer would have known, the priest and the Levite were following the laws and customs that forbid them touching anything unclean--including the blood of an injured man. Yet, in Jesus’ story they are not the hero. That honor goes to the Samaritan, a tribe usually shunned by the “chosen” people as outsiders. As Christians, we often consider ourselves as “chosen” as well. Within our own denomination, we have the awareness to joke about the “Brethren name game” as a way of knowing who is chosen and who is not. Yet, to understand and live into the parable of the Good Samaritan, we must be willing to acknowledge that our neighbors include those who are unclean, those who are from different tribes, and those with whom we might not usually associate ourselves.
The protests in Charlottesville over the weekend, which in turn led to other protests and rallies, have left many in the country struggling with what to do next. Jesus’ teachings do not have easy answers, instead we are left with more questions: How do we, as Christians, respond to our neighbors? Who do we see as our neighbors when so many people are injured? Is it easier to empathize for innocent bystanders or the police officers just doing their jobs? Do we want to be neighbors for those who are protesting peacefully? But what about those who came to Charlottesville with guns, batons, and teargas? Are white supremacists who are injured our neighbors? Could we extend the metaphor, so that those who teach others to hate are robbers who have stolen away the ability to love? Are the “Antifa” who intend to stop the neo-Nazis, whatever the cost, our neighbors? Even when they strike back? Are we better when we believe racism is wrong, but stay home? Can we believe that we are neighborly to black people whose day-to-day experiences of racism would name us as perpetrators? How can we be neighbors, when maybe each of us is the priest, the Levite, the man beaten, the robber? Are some robberies and beatings worse than others? How can we condemn the robber or the priest, without condemning ourselves for the violence we perpetrate and the times we have walked past?
We want to be the Samaritan, the good Samaritan. In the words of Micah 6:8 (KJV), “He has shown thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
In response to the violence in Charlottesville, the gathering of white supremacists, the increase of hate crimes, and the awareness of social injustices, it is not enough to read the parables. We must connect the words of our faith with our actions. In a faith walk that is humbled before God, we must acknowledge the ways that we are complicit with the powers and principalities and the ways we have benefited from injustice. When we pray for mercy, it is that we might be forgiven as we forgive. In becoming living parables in our towns, our states, and our country, we strive to be like the Good Samaritan by showing mercy and compassion to all, showing our love for God through our love for others.