20 August 2020

Seeking to justify myself

I can't count the times I've heard, read, and appreciated the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke's Gospel, in which the conventionally religious people pass by the injured robbery victim, and the despised foreigner proves to be the merciful neighbor and comes to the rescue. Rarely, if ever, have I taken into full account the provocation for the story: the lawyer's question, "And who is my neighbor?"

More precisely, I've become interested in the motivation for the lawyer's question. Having won Jesus' approval for his reading of the requirements for eternal life ("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”), he wants more: 

"But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" (My italics.)

In "justifying" himself, what was the lawyer trying to accomplish? Several commentators point to other examples of Luke spotlighting people who are more concerned about their own reputations than the essence of faith (Luke 16:14-15, 18:9-14, for example). Sharon Ringe's commentary on Luke (in the Westminster Bible Companion series) suggests that the lawyer, aside from showing off, was trying to get Jesus to put manageable boundaries on the concept of neighbor, perhaps to fit the lawyer's own comfort level.

Ringe ends her fascinating examination of this parable with these words:

No one can simply have a neighbor, one must also be a neighbor. Neighboring is a two-way street. The parable changes in a fundamental way how the question about neighbors is usually framed. The Gospel records no one's response to this story -- neither the lawyer's nor the onlookers'. The story simply stands as another challenge to the transformation of daily life and business as usual, which lies at the heart of the practice of discipleship.

I'm not surprised that the lawyer's and onlookers' responses are not recorded. What counts is Jesus' challenge to the lawyer's motivation -- his seeking to be seen as an expert on the law, and his desire to keep mercy in reasonable bounds. The response to Jesus' challenge that counts is ours.

Meme on Facebook.
The death of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter has put racism in the USA on trial in dramatic new ways, particularly in the polarizing context of this political season. As a sort of reaction, I've seen many variations on a theme that goes something like this: "I don't see race; I just see people." (Sometimes the tagline of this approach is "All Lives Matter," frequently accompanied by conspiracy theories about the Black Lives Matter movement.) My problem with this approach is that it reminds me of the lawyer who wanted to justify himself. First: he wants to show his own command of the law, and, to be fair, in doing so he is literally correct -- we are to love God and love our neighbor. In Black Lives context, we are to put an end to all false and unjust distinctions based on race. I can imagine Jesus saying, "Good! Do this and you will live."

In the Good Samaritan story, the lawyer still wanted to justify himself. In asking for a definition of "neighbor," the lawyer sought to prioritize his own comfort. Here we see a crucial lesson for our own dialogues on race: our personal story and our personal comfort are not the priority! You and I might personally not "see race," if that were possible in a nation that deliberately baked racism into every aspect of social and economic life for centuries. However, our smug certainty does not change life for anyone whose actual skin color makes life actually risky, who must "see race" to avoid those risks. And those who bear testimony to the risks of racism are our neighbors.

The man who was rescued by the Good Samaritan had been traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In commenting on this passage, Martin Luther King proposed a logical extension of the Samaritan's mercy: 

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 comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [Source.]

This is what being a neighbor means now. For white followers of Jesus, it means not being obsessed with the need to prove that "we don't see race" and are obviously superior to those deplorables who do. It means learning to discern, with God's merciful help, what racism has done to all of us, and to engage in a deliberate collaboration with all the mystics and activists of all races, liberals, progressives, and conservatives alike, to pull down the strongholds of racism. Then we will know that All Lives Matter.

I have a hard time imagining not seeing race, but maybe that's just me. I see no particular value or demerit in my white skin color, but I do have pride in my Norwegian heritage. I want to learn about and enjoy the pride that people from other cultures have, whether or not those cultures are linked with skin colors different from mine. When I was in high school, the expression "Black is Beautiful" gained currency; am I to deny this? The Black church was my first consistent exposure to Christianity; am I to betray that legacy?

At the time I'm posting this, Aleksei Navalny, Russia's best-known opposition leader, is fighting for his life. This link is likely to be outdated in a matter of hours. More from Meduza. I've also been following coverage on this Russian site, Dozhd TV, which passes on a report from the head of Navalny's anti-corruption organization that Navalny's body contains a substance that is hazardous to those around him.

Kristin Du Mez: Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the legacy of evangelical machismo. (That's my term, not hers.)

Aside from controversies over "All Lives Matter" and the supposed socialist hell being prepared by Democrats, the evangelical support for Donald Trump is often driven by the anti-abortion movement. Supposedly, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are "hell-bent" to pull out all stops on abortion. I tried to encourage cooler rhetoric in this post from a year ago last spring. Randall Balmer has this interesting resource (PDF) to put this relatively recent evangelical concern into historical perspective.

Why do missionaries leave the field? In particular, what are the cultural factors? Andrea Sears presents data from 714 survey respondents.

Friday PS:  I just saw this Washington Post article about interracial conversations among evangelical leaders and the dramatic effect of Trump's presidency. This quotation from Emmanuel Acho leapt out at me, just hours after I'd published this week's post: 
"Some Christians say, 'It’s not about race, it’s about grace. It’s not about skin, it’s about sin,'" Acho said in an interview. "It’s hard for Black people to attend predominantly White churches, specifically when White pastors are silent on the issues that matter to Black people."

Mstislav Rostropovich plays Bach's sort of blues.


Anne R. Buttenheim said...

I also find it impossible to not see race in the culture we Americans live in. And I find this to be true although - no, because - my spouse is Vietnamese-American and my goddaughter and her 3 small children are African American.
In fact, the closer I get to actual black people, the more noticeable the construct of race becomes. The family of four lived with us for over a year. My twin godsons were then 8 months to 2 years, and I found myself worrying, as black parents do, about their safety as teenage boys who are seen as threatening by white people. I always knew poor people, women, black people, single mothers, had a hard time of it, but living with this family through the mother's divorce and her attempts to stabilize her life and start college were still eye-opening. Every safety net is so stingy that it is amazing that anyone ever moves up and out.
In any case, it is impossible to "forget" race even when you love people. Even if you forget for a moment, the looks of others will remind you fast enough. Instead of being largely ignored by black people on the beach (I'm on vacation), I get soft smiles from many black women as I play with my godchildren in the shallow water. White people ask my adult goddaughter who "those people" are; if she answers "my mom and dad," she gets half-disguised puzzled looks that she finds hysterical.
Love does conquer all, but that doesn't mean you stop talking about race and racism and privilege - it just makes it more real. Instead of a civic or intellectual interest, it becomes a passionate concern. And as a Christian I go crazy when "decent" white people go on and on about "all lives matter" -- it is willful blindness that frees them from having to seriously response to racism. Claiming "color-blindness" is just one more white privilege that makes white peoples' consciences easier.

Johan Maurer said...

Anne! Don't know why it took me so long to see your comment. Thanks for your real-life observations.