Sermon: “Who Will Be a Samaritan?”

When violence erupts, the Bible offers plenty of places to turn. You can go in very different directions.

You can quote Jesus, and interestingly enough also the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, and say that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. But you might also turn to the pages of Joshua, and its account of bloody, bloody days in which the people of Israel sought to destroy their enemies. In the Psalms you’ll find cry after cry for justice, cry after cry for peace. And you can quote Jesus again, when swords flashed in the Garden of Gethsemane as they came to arrest him. He said, “Enough of this.”

Enough of this. I’ve thought that a lot recently.

But I can’t escape the Gospel lectionary passage for today, Jesus’ parable that we know as “The Good Samaritan.”

After this week, with the deaths in Baton Rouge, and in Falcon Heights, and in Dallas, I think we’re going to need some Good Samaritans.

I think we’re going to need to be Good Samaritans.

Jim Wallis, a founder and long-time leader in the Sojourners community movement, called racism America’s Original Sin in a book by that title issued this year, and though it’s not our only national sin – violence is up there, too, not to mention greed – he’s right. Racism has profoundly scarred human relationships throughout the United States, and it has warped human institutions. European settlers arrived on the shores of the American continents with a comfortable sense of their superiority over other Europeans: the Spaniards were better than the French, who were better than the English, who were better than the Spaniards, and actually they all believed they were greater than everyone else.

This sense of superiority only grew as Europeans encountered the peoples of the Americas, of African, and of Asia, and eventually the Pacific. In deciding who was “Us” and great, rather than “Them” and inferior, one of the measures they came to use was skin color. They weren’t the only ones to do it – the Dalits of India, those excluded from the caste system and in former days, frequently called “Untouchables” – generally have skin darker than other Indians. I learned about the caste system in school as a child, and somehow I never learned about that truth. Europeans, and the America they founded, it has to be said, combined race prejudice with power in a particularly toxic way.

They set up their society and their government and their laws to benefit “Us,” and if it came at the expense of “Them,” well, so be it. In fact, better it be so.

And they brought that terrible sense of superiority and the systems that maintained it to Hawai’i, disenfranchising its rulers of their sovereignty, its people of their vote and their land, and settling new immigrants from Asia on plantations where they could be controlled.

Protests and a series of court decisions overturned many of the nation’s racist laws, including the ban on the Hawaiian language, and overt prejudice has become less acceptable since then, but much of the system remains, the policies and procedures – systems that favored, and continue to favor, white people.

My friend the Rev. Da Vita McCallister describes it this way: Racism is like a toxin that was dumped onto the land year after year. It built up in the soil and got into the groundwater, and then began to poison people through the food that they ate and the water that they drank.

The people realized what had happened, and they stopped new dumping. But the toxin remains in the soil, and in the water, and it will take time before it degrades or gets diluted away.

And we’ve already eaten from this land.

We’ve drunk from the water.

Racism is in us.

I stand in a position of profound privilege in America. I’m pale, I’m male, I’m educated, I’m Christian, and economically, I’m doing fine. That puts me at a disadvantage sometimes in understanding others who don’t share those characteristics. I tend to generalize my experience to others – most of us do, I would guess.

So on the mainland, I can walk nearly anywhere and most of the people look like me, and I’ve got some assurance that they have similar experiences and expectations. They probably have a different family heritage, and they may have different views on plenty of things, but at a casual glance they’re close enough that I don’t feel out of place and they don’t see me as out of place.

Contrast that to members of a minority or marginalized population, who learn from experience that there are places where they’re unusual, where they’re out of place, even where they don’t belong. The old systems have fostered and maintained living areas for people of color that are separate from those of whites on the mainland. Crossing the line from one to the other, a person of color will know, and those around will know, that this is unusual. Police officers are quick to cue on what’s different, which is how you get a story from my natal state of a famous African-American athlete being questioned by police for shoveling snow from his own driveway.

Columnist George Will this week complained about a way of thinking that seeks for equality of outcomes among the races, rather than simply seeking to ensure equality of opportunity. That sounds absolutely right on the face of it – but shouldn’t we look at the outcomes, too, as a way to see if opportunity is truly equal? When outcomes are skewed against marginalized people, doesn’t that tell us something? When the proportion of native Hawaiians in prison, for example, is twice the proportion of native Hawaiians in the population – isn’t that a sign that opportunity remains unequal?

As Vann Newkirk wrote: “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”

That’s what makes Jesus’ story about the beaten man and his unlikely savior so compelling. Both the storyteller and his merciful character stepped outside of the system of their day.

The traditional conflict between Jews and Samaritans brought death and violence. In contrast, the Samaritan of Jesus’ story brought healing and life. He crossed the boundary of hatred and fear, and in so doing, became Jesus’ example of love lived out.

I’ll grant you that in some ways the Samaritan had it easy. He had physical wounds to tend. The wounds of racism go deep. Some are hidden, some are misunderstood, even by those suffering them. Likewise, the systems and customs that maintain racism are sometimes hard to see, sometimes misleading, sometimes flatly denied, and sometimes bitterly defended.

For instance, it’s a practice in some municipalities for fines and citations to provide a significant funding source for police, and it tends to happen in poorer places, with higher populations of people of color. The US Justice Department found that Ferguson, Missouri, had done just that. When fines and citations are the way to meet the budget, the protectors of the people become the stop-and-ticket tormentors of the people, and it gets worse if you’re poor and can’t pay the fine. The practice was so widespread that a majority of Ferguson’s residents had pending fines. Before the report, the city leaders of Ferguson denied that any such thing went on.

That kind of practice makes being a police officer, a keeper of the peace, particularly hard, but in my opinion, we need to make it harder in another way. We also need to hold police to a higher standard than those of ordinary citizens. Why? Because they represent government; they represent all of society, they represent the people that we need to be, or intend to be, or aspire to be. It’s not fair, but it’s appropriate. I have some sympathy, because I’m also in a role where I represent the church, this congregation and all of Christianity, and my behavior gets evaluated by a higher set of standards – and that’s how it has to be.

We need people like those who, when the shooting began last Thursday night, gathered around a toddler’s stroller,black and white, to act as human shields as they brought the child out of danger. We need police officers like those who posed smiling with Black Lives Matter protesters in Dallas on Thursday, and then ran toward the gunfire when it erupted as the march ended. We need Dallas’ Finest to truly be Dallas’ finest, and we need Hawai’i County’s Finest to truly be Hawai’i County’s finest. We need Baton Rouge’s Finest to be Baton Rouge’s finest, and we need Falcon Heights’ Finest to be Falcon Heights finest.

We don’t need any of those who represent us as police officers to become victims of rage and violence.

Mostly, we need Samaritans.

German theologian the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died under the Nazi regime in 1945, wrote this: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

We need those who will love those around them.

We need Samaritans who will love their neighbors.

Who will see the pain, and the grief, and the weight of law, history, and culture, all of which burden their neighbor?

Who will draw near to learn more, to examine the wounds, to understand the pain?

Who will take the risk to be moved by the suffering, to feel the gut twist of another’s pain?

Who will act to end the sin of racism?

Who will be a Samaritan?

I pray that I might be a Samaritan.

I pray that we all might be Samaritans.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on July 10, 2016

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