Saturday, July 16

Who is the Good Samaritan Today?

Consider many of the recent events around our world: five police officers shot in Dallas, Texas; 84 people killed through an act of terrorism in Nice, France; over 136 African Americans extrajudicial killings by police this year alone; continued violence in Syria and across the Middle East; 49 killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. There seems to be so much fear, violence, aggression and sadness everywhere we look. One photo that is being shared across the web says, "Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil."1 From a Christian perspective, I wonder how to approach these topics on social media and in my day-to-day conversations. One parable sticks out to me. Found in the tenth chapter of the gospel of St. Luke is the parable of the Good Samaritan. A parable, by definition, is "a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson."2 When Jesus narrated this parable to his original audience, he was making a strong point about compassion, about about injustices, about racial prejudice, about fear, and about mercy. This parable is, in a sense, a timeless - yet timely - parable for our day.

Before exploring some of these aforementioned issues further, it is important to take a look at the parable itself in order to have a framework with which we can work in, also keeping in mind that this parable was told in a 1st century Jewish context, likely in the Aramaic language, with a very different socio-political, economic, philosophical and theological context - yet its core message can still speak to us today. The text of Luke 10:25-37 says:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. 'Teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?' 'What is written in the Law?' he replied. 'How do you read it?' He answered, '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, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 'You have answered correctly,' Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.' But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'  
In reply Jesus said: 'A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' 
[Jesus asked,] 'Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?' The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.' Jesus told him, 'Go and do likewise.'
Rally in Trenton, NJ (November 2015)
Who is our neighbor? This parable shows a man who was attacked on the roadside and left for dead - something similar happened again this past week in the cases of 32-year old Philando Castile and 37-year old Alton Sterling. This story is still relevant and its message is still needed today! Notice a few things, then, about this parable: the man who was attacked is not described in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, skin tone, or anything remotely similar. He is simply called a "man" who was on his way to Jericho. Jesus' audience (and later translations of this passage) assume the man to be a Jew, but the text simply calls him "a man."

Further, when Jesus asks the teacher of the law who the man's neighbor was, he does not say "it was the Samaritan," but instead says, "The one who had mercy on him." He does not name him, but only alludes to him - why this this? This is because tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the 1st century between Jews and Samaritans because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover. There had been tension between Jews and Samaritans for centuries, as the Jews viewed Samaritans as being illegitimate heirs of Israel. Their feud dates back to the time of the patriarchs, but after the kingdom of Israel split in two, and up until the time of Jesus there was fighting and racial and ethnic barriers arose. Consider one example from an early Jewish text that demonstrates this attitude, "He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine" (Mishna Shebiith 8:10).

In making the "neighbor" a Samaritan, let alone a "Good" Samaritan, Jesus was making a strong point about the racial prejudices the "experts in the law" were harboring. Jesus himself was much like the Samaritan man - in his ministries, he was willing to touch the unclean. willing to be present to the needy and the marginalized, and similar to the Samaritan, was seen as an outcast in the eyes of the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law. In terms of the socio-historical context of the parable, many scholars point out that the Priest and the Levite may not have touched the man for reasons of cleanliness, as they would be considered "unclean" by Temple standards. Also, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was often riddled with thieves and robbers, so it may be that both men were afraid to go near the man on the road for fear that it may have been a trap, or, that the men who had attacked him were close by and could attack again. Both of these are, to some extent, valid reasons - but this is still an example of choosing fear and law over mercy and love.

When Jesus gave this parable to his audience, he may have had in mind another time in history where something similar actually happened. Several centuries before Jesus, following a battle, some of the Samaritan soldiers "gave up the [Jewish] prisoners and plunder in the presence of the officials and all the assembly. The men... took the prisoners, and from the plunder they clothed all who were naked. They provided them with clothes and sandals, food and drink, and healing oil. All those who were weak they put on donkeys. So they took them back to their fellow Israelites at Jericho, the City of Palms, and returned to Samaria."3 This account is an excellent example of where a marginalized people - the Samaritans - looked past the racism and violence that had been done to them by the Jewish community and chose to treat the Jews with compassion and works of mercy. This is precisely what the "Good Samaritan" did in the parable.

Klyne Snodgrass said, "On the basis of this parable we must deal with our own racism but must also seek justice for, and offer assistance to, those in need, regardless of the group to which they belong."4 The important question that the expert of the law (not expert of love and compassion, mind you) asks of Jesus is, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus answers with a story that defies racial prejudices, goes against societal norms of the time and uplifts the marginalized community. For our purposes today, this is the central question - "Who is our neighbor?" The point that Jesus was trying to make is that everyone is our neighbor, and gets the expert of the law to admit that "such an identification opens wide the door of loving action. By leaving aside the identity of the wounded man and by portraying the Samaritan traveler as one who performs the law... Jesus has nullified the worldview that gives rise to such questions as, Who is my neighbor? The purity-holiness matrix has been capsized. And, not surprisingly in [Luke's] Gospel, neighborly love has been concretized in care for one who is, in this parable, self-evidently a social outcast."5

Most recent attacks in France - our neighbors (
So turning the question back to our modern context we ask, who is our neighbor? Who could the "Good Samaritan" be if Jesus told the parable today? What about the Muslim community? I have many good friends who are Muslim. At their core, Islam is centered around promoting peace and justice, which includes charity and acts of mercy, in order to someday reach union with God (Allah in Arabic). But when some hear of incidents such as the attack in Orlando or the 84 people killed in Nice, people hear names such as "Mohamed" or "Omar," - both foreign names to American ears - and they react against the Islamic community. Omar (the Orlando shooter) was confirmed to have had ties with ISIS, whereas Mohamed - a name often associated with Islam due to the prophet Muhammad - has at this time not been shown to have had any direct ties with ISIS or other organizations. In fact, not only was he not considered a suspected militant by French authorities prior to the incident, but his family claims that he was not religious, did not attend a mosque, and was an alcoholic (drinking is forbidden in Islam).6,7 

The point here is that simply due to their name and/or ethnicity, the media uses men such as these continue to paint Islam in a very negative light, through no fault of the Islamic community. ISIS is a radical terrorist organization fixed on creating a unified Islamic state through violent means, primarily through terrorism - which is not the way of Islam. Conflating terrorism and Islam has very real world consequences! It hurts people, it marginalizes people, it leads to further acts of violence and injustice, and it continues to propagate false understandings of their community, beliefs and culture. Now, one term often talked about regarding Islam is jihad. Although the term jihad is often associated with a holy war, it actually has a much broader understanding in Islam. It speaks of a struggle to transform the individual and society. But one cannot simply espouse a social justice teaching and not act. One must puts words into action. We need to continue to struggle for them, and in solidarity with them. If we continue to associate religious traditions such as Islam with acts of terrorism, then why would we expect anything different than marginalization and other injustices done to the Muslim community?

This is 2016 - where we have computers in our pockets, where we have humans living and traveling through outer space, where we can get aboard a plane and be in a different country in a few hours, where we can talk to friends and family who are across the world. We live in a world where we can talk about Quantum Physics, about the Big Bang and all that followed, about evolutionary processes and medical advancements, about the Higgs Boson particle and CERN's Large Hedron Collider. Why are we still having the conversation about racism, terrorism, violence and injustice? Why do we continue to contribute to the social sins and structures of sin that make up our world and continue to go against the basic dignity of the human person and their rights? A lot of social media is taken up right now with any number of commentaries on current topics as aforementioned - the Orlando shootings, the police who were killed, the African Americans who were killed, the people in Nice who were killed - you name it. This ought to show us the concerns of society. People are crying out, but are we listening, and what are we doing?

Perhaps one of the more widely controversial and talked about movements among all of these incidents is the #BlackLivesMatter movement. On their website we can find their mission and their message, which declares, "#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society... [it] goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes... [it also] affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements... we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state. We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity."8

Richmond (CA) Police Chief holding a sign
BlackLivesMatter, at its core, stands against Racism and injustices. Racism, for example, has been seen throughout human history. In the book of Esther, the adviser to the king, Haman, out of his spite for the Jewish people issues an edict in the king’s name that would result in their genocide. Fortunately, the Queen of Persia happens to secretly be a Jew, and is able to put a stop to this attempt. At another point, there is detectable contempt seen in the New Testament times between the Jews and Samaritans, so that when Jesus told his famous parable of the Good Samaritan, it may have been the equivalent of the "Good Gay Black-man" in the South in the 1850s. Further, one sees in the time of Mahatma Gandhi a disconnect between Indians and Englishmen. The Indian people were not allowed to be seen walking down the street with a white man - and it was against injustices such as this that Gandhi rebelled. He had been thrown off of a train by Englishmen for his skin color. This is racial prejudice!

Historically, many of the explorers known in the history books during the period of "great discovery and exploration" as well as their traders and soldiers allowed racial prejudices to rule their decisions. In fact, “they killed in order to take possession of the land, and reduced first the ‘Indians’ and then the blacks to slavery in order to exploit their work... It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the word "race" was used for the first time to classify human beings biologically... as a contest between strong races and weak ones, with the latter being genetically inferior to the former.”9 In the United States, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln around the time of the Civil War helped to free the African American slaves, and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. as well as figures such as Rosa Parks helped to largely free us from segregation. But issues of slavery still exist with human trafficking. Issues of segregation still exist in many parts of the world. Discrimination, even if outlawed, is a moral problem, not one that the legal system can necessarily speak to save by force - and if these last few years have shown us anything, it is that racism, discrimination and prejudice are still very prominent today.

One important example of this radical hatred and discrimination is against the LGBTQI+ community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex). The recent shooting of 49 people (50, including the perpetrator) at Pulse, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida (and injuring of 53 more) was a hate crime fueled by racism, discrimination and radical hatred. The bar was hosting a Latino Night so most of the victims were Hispanic. For me, a lot of the work I have been involved in over the last year in the greater Philadelphia area has largely been with the Hispanic community - which itself suffers from discrimination, radical injustices and fear over immigration reform - but also with many individuals in the LGBTQI+ community, and the fear, sadness and outcry over what happened in Orlando was very much tangibly felt in our communities. The Pulse gay bar was a refuge for those suffering discrimination and oppression due to their sexual orientation, but it has become the scene of violence and hatred. If the "Good Samaritan" in the parable was actually the "Good Homosexual" or the "Good Queer," a "Good Immigrant" or a "Good Refugee," how would that change our perception of "The Other"? What if it was the "Good Gay Muslim Syrian Refugee"? If everyone is our neighbor, then let us learn to treat them as such.

A few years ago, over 4,600 religious leaders from 50 different religious traditions came together to endorse the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. In the document they declared, "Sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift... Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent and pleasure... It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation... God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear and respond to the suffering caused by sexual abuse and violence against women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality... We call for: Religious leadership in movements to end sexual and social injustice...”.10 (You can read their full statement here).

Memorial for the Orlando victims in New York City
Statements such as these are incredibly important, as are movements such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, because despite controversy surrounding each even within the religious community and the Black community, respectively, at their core the message and mission is to respect basic human dignity, human rights and human flourishing. Speaking as a Christian, I know that I am called to uphold and promote love, mercy and compassion - something not found in the recent attacks and acts of radical hatred and injustice. So I would call on each of us to continue to think about these things in a different mindset. Who is our neighbor? The question is deeply theological and can become abstract and nonsensical - if we chose not to  act. It is easy for me to sit behind my laptop and type these words defending human dignity and promoting social justice, but it is another thing entirely to go out, live out and act out these words and these ideas. Prayer is not enough, we must also act, because we are our brother and sister's keeper.

So may this parable and the sadness of these events call us to social action. Do what you can, where you can and how you can. Let us work together to discover unity in diversity, love among so much radical hatred and injustice, and work for justice so that one day, together, we may reach a peace that surpasses all understanding. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."11 We have to figure out how to stop this systemic violence and the structures of social sin that are currently in place and work to promote healing and understanding.

Do we see the Good Samaritan today? Do we stand with them? Do we stand with our neighbors? Just as the Samaritan was marginalized and oppressed, so are too many others today. Therefore, I chose to stand in solidarity with the victims of violence and aggression in Orlando, Nice, in Dallas, in Falcon Heights, in Baton Rouge, in Syria - everywhere; we stand with those in the LGBTQI+ community who are victimized and oppressed, we stand in solidarity with the communities oppressed by racism and prejudices, and we stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters facing oppression. As a Christian, specifically, a white, male, American, Catholic-Franciscan Christian born and raised in the United States - recognizing how little marginalization I have dealt with due to all of the privileges that I have been given growing up in such a life - I choose to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters of every religious tradition, sexual orientation, cultural background and skin tone. I choose to add my voices to the many voices of this outcry against injustice.

[1] Brown, Adrienne Maree. (adriennemareebrown). “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil. #blacklivesmatter”. 10 July 2016. Instagram.
[2] "parable". Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 16 Jul. 2016.
[3] From 2nd Chronicles 28:14-15.
[4] Snodgrass, Klyne. Stories with Intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus. Eerdmans: 2008, 361. Print.
[5] Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Eerdmans: 1997. 432. Print.
[6] Payton, Matt. "Nice terror attack: Police arrest killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel's wife". The Independent. Web.
[7] Griffiths, Elle. "Nice Terror Attacker 'wasn't Muslim, He Was a S**t Who Drank Alcohol and Avoided Mosque,' Says His Cousin." Mirror. MGN Limited, 15 July 2016. Web.
[8] "About the Black Lives Matter Network." Black Lives Matter, 2012. Web.
[9] The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society. 1988. Print.
[10] Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.
[11] King Jr., Martin Luther. "A Time to Break the Silence," quoted in Douglas A. Hicks and Mark R. Valeri, Global Neighbors: Christian Faith and Moral Obligation in Today's Economy. Eerdmans Publishing: 2008, 31. Print.

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