Like the rest of the country I have spent this week processing the decision of the trial of George Zimmerman. There are so many facets to this case and most of them I can’t even begin to comprehend.
The morning after the decision of the six member all female jury in Florida was handed down, I was sitting in church listening to this Gospel:
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 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.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29)
The lawyer poses a misguided but very human question: Who is my neighbor? Who, according to the law, must I treat as a human being? Who deserves to be included in my community? Who can walk down the street and be assured of arriving home safely? Who gets to live on my street? Who am I supposed to love? Who?
The parable that Jesus tells in response to that query is one of the most poignant and easily recognizable stories from the Bible. He tells of a Jewish man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead, who is abandoned by his own people yet saved by another man, a man who went out of his way to save his life—a Samaritan man.
Enmity between Samaritans and Jews went back… far. Really far.
In 722 B.C. Assyria conquered Israel and took most of its people into captivity. The invaders then brought in Gentile colonists “from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim” (2 Kin. 17:24) to resettle the land. The foreigners brought with them their pagan idols, which the remaining Jews began to worship alongside the God of Israel (2 Kin. 17:29-41). Intermarriages also took place (Ezra 9:1-10:44; Neh. 13:23-28).
Meanwhile, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon in 600 B.C. Its people, too, were carried off into captivity. But 70 years later, a remnant of 43,000 was permitted to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The people who now inhabited the former northern kingdom—the Samaritans—vigorously opposed the repatriation and tried to undermine the attempt to reestablish the nation. For their part, the full-blooded, monotheistic Jews detested the mixed marriages and worship of their northern cousins. So walls of bitterness were erected on both sides and did nothing but harden for the next 550 years. (from here.)
This is the perspective that we aren’t taught in Sunday school: that Samaritans and Jews despised each other, and this hatred went down into the very core of their beings.
Yet Jesus teaches a powerful lesson: the people we thought we could write off, the ones we can’t stand, that we disagree with in everything, that we view with suspicion, are neighbors, and neighbors must be loved.
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
Love. Love means letting go of fear, prejudice, hate–anything that separates us from seeing another person as a beloved child of God. Samaritans and Jews — like Trayvon and George — held prejudices and fears of one another. Yet the Samaritan was able to set aside whatever feelings he had about Jews and see the man bleeding on the side of the road as a human being in distress. What do you think the Jewish man’s response was to such compassion from someone he thought he hated? Did he also go and do likewise? What about the lawyer, did he get the message Jesus was preaching? (do we?)
A young man is dead and that is without a doubt a tragedy, and the circumstances surrounding his death have divided us as a country even further. In our Baptismal Covenant we vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love others as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. This story is just one of many in an unjust society with broken judicial systems that uphold rather than dispel the root causes of such sad stories. They are symptoms of the broken, divided world we live in and perpetuate.
How can we heal and reconcile such brokenness?
Jesus gives us the answer: Love. And not just “Yeah he’s a pretty cool guy I guess.” I’m talking about compassionate love, the kind of love where you set aside prejudice and anger and fear and suspicion. The kind where you open your heart to another human being, acknowledge the Christ within, and serve him.
As a young, white, middle class female living in the South I acknowledge my inexperience with racism personally. Speaking from my own context it’s easy to say these words, and I want to acknowledge that loving in the context of someone experiencing racism first hand might look different. It’s also more difficult. My personal experiences with racism are all second-hand–either being in the presence of someone who makes casually racist remarks or with a friend who has been hurt by those remarks. It is uncomfortable, it is painful, and it is heartbreaking.
No doubt, we need to be talking about the systemic racism and exclusion that plague our society. We should be discussing (not debating!) what is happening in the world that leads to such stories as that of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. We need to be asking ourselves, Who is my neighbor? (and here are some other questions we should be asking, posted by the Chief Operating Officer of The Episcopal Church, Stacy Sauls.)
And maybe when we start acting and living compassionately, lovingly, and standing up to what society and culture tells us we should think and believe; maybe, when the systems that govern us truly reflect the society we want to be in; maybe, just maybe, the kingdom of God will be at hand.
Kathleen is the lay chaplain for Episcopal Campus Ministry at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.