Saturday, July 9, 2016

"Do This, And You Will Live"

FSU student Randall Smith addresses Black Lives Matter on the steps of the Old State Capitol

Tomorrow morning in Episcopal Churches, congregations will hear the familiar parable from Luke of the Good Samaritan. For those who don't know it, this is Jesus' teaching moment with a lawyer who wants to "justify" himself so that he may inherit eternal life. Jesus, ever the Jewish teacher, gives this lawyer a story of the man who fell into the hands of robbers who beat him, stripped him of his money and clothes, and left him in a ditch to die. Along comes a priest who sees the half-dead man, and hurries on his way. Then comes a Levite, who also moves along without stopping to help the victim. 

Finally, the Samaritan shows up, and not only does he stop to take care of the man, he gets him to a place where they can treat him, and agrees to pay for the care. The big catch here--as the lawyer knew, and we in the 21st century know--is that the Samaritans were the despised "others" of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries. Therefore, to have a Samaritan portrayed in such a positive light would have made the lawyer cringe. And if that fact didn't bother this lawyer, Jesus' follow up question...asking, "So, who was the neighbor to this dying man at his hour of need?"...certainly would have made this lawyer sweat and shift uneasily back and forth as he mumbled, "The one who showed mercy." Jesus says, "Go and do likewise." A deacon will proclaim this to be "The Gospel of the Lord." And the congregation will respond with "Praise to you, Lord Christ."

In light of the week that was in the United States, this lesson has so many moments, so many pieces that speak to multiple parts of the media drumbeat of the maddening world that as I attempt to address it here on this blog, I can see a few things I want to tackle. I'll start with a social media hashtag: #JesusIsSpecific.

If we pay attention to the story, Jesus didn't shy away from using an identifier for the three people who came upon the otherwise unspecified victim. We don't know the identity of the half-dead guy in the ditch, or even the ethnicity of his attackers. But we do know that a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan all had the chance to show themselves to be the good neighbor to the man in need. Only the Samaritan followed through. Was the victim a Samaritan? We don't know, and it didn't seem to matter to this Good Samaritan because he was responding out of love for another human being in need. This is important in Jesus' parable because when our Gospel writer Luke tells us that the lawyer, "wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus 'who is my neighbor?' (Lk14:29) sounds a bit like someone saying, "But really, do I have to focus on any one specific neighbor? How wide does this have to be?" 

Or, to put it in the context of this week, "Do we really need to say 'Black Lives Matter'? Shouldn't it be 'All Lives Matter.'?"

In theory and in a perfect world, yes. In the reality of our broken world, no. Because we are still living in a time in this country where people who have darker skin than my own are suspected of guilt simply because they are black or brown. They are followed in stores, watched like hawks, and arrested or shot on routine traffic stops for no reason. Black families have to have "the talk" with their sons, and we're not speaking of the birds and the bees. We're talking about how to not scare white people, especially ones in police uniforms. They are not treated with same respect and dignity that I am. And, according to our Baptismal Covenant, which specifically directs me "to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being," that's not OK. So, until black lives matter I cannot believe that all lives matter.

That includes the lives of police officers. My heart was crushed again when the body count climbed Thursday night with the pointed killing of five Dallas police officers who were doing their sworn duty to keep the peace as people protested the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But I couldn't help but notice how the television news media turned its attention swiftly to the murders of police officers which conveniently takes away from the whole reason they were in a public place where they could be targeted by an angry man with a high-powered military rifle. They were guarding people protesting the murders of two black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and a Minneapolis suburb which again raises the issue of rampant racism in America. However that part of the story seems to be "old news" and isn't being discussed or acknowledged. In fact, some TV anchors have wanted the surviving family members of Philando Castile to comment on what happened in Dallas, totally ignoring that they are people in grief and mourning who should not be asked to shoulder the burdens of people in a city several hundred miles away. Blue lives will matter when black lives also matter. 

In the Gospel story, Luke notes that the lawyer was attempting to test Jesus by asking him the question, "What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?" When Jesus asks the lawyer to quote what he knows, the lawyer gives the response of reciting the Shema: "Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus praises him and says, "Do this, and you will live."  This should raise a number of questions for all of us. If we are truly loving God in every way possible, then we ought to be ascending into our better selves, not our basest instincts. If we our loving our neighbor as ourselves, we will quit begrudging them their hashtags that demand we pay attention to their lives when they are in an even deeper pain and grief than we are. We must also understand that a phrase like, "Do this, and you will live," might cause a sharp pain for those mothers and fathers who have been having "the talk" with their sons only to have them still dying needlessly.

This has been a very difficult week in the country, for sure. A week that began with a celebration of independence ends with shock, horror, and some painful reminders that we must commit ourselves to interdependence or we will collapse. Perhaps it is best to remember more words that are part of Jesus' Jewish tradition:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."--The Talmud.

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