rough manuscript, by Rev. Becca Girrell Clark – 7/21/13
A child was walking along the road from the convenience store to the suburb, when he was set upon by a man who wanted to be a hero. The man stalked him, engaged him– we do not know for sure how the child responded. And the man shot him, dead.
Neighbors heard the altercation outside, but they did not want to get involved and so the neighbors passed by on the other side. Police arrived on the scene, but the man with the gun said he’d been afraid for his own life, and so they did not book him, or take him into custody, or press charges against him, and the police passed by on the other side. The law of Florida retained that a person (although maybe not a black person and maybe not a female person, but a person) could carry and use a weapon, could use deadly force when they believed their life was in danger, and so the law of Florida passed by on the other side. A jury of this man’s peers, not the victim’s peers, not the boy dead beside the road’s peers, but the gunman’s peers, listened to the evidence, tried to determine if the boy had posed a threat to the man with the gun, and they determined the man with the gun was not guilty of murder or of manslaughter, and the jurors passed by on the other side (one of them stopping a day later to sign a book deal). Good Samaritans and Good Samaritans wannabees wept and wore hoodies and mailed empty packets of skittles from the comfort of their quiet neighborhoods and their safe roadways, and, grieving yet alive, passed by on the other side.
Martin Luther King, Jr said once that Sunday morning at 11 o’clock (or in our case 10 o’clock) was the most segregated hour in American Christianity, with people worshipping almost exclusively along racial lines. We give thanks that our congregation is blessed by each member, and that we are growing in diversity in many ways—racially, socioeconomically, politically, theologically, in terms of orientation and age and place of origin, and we give thanks especially for our children, who lead us in song and prayer and life together, regardless of the things adults might see as differences.
Even so, we recognize the comparative lack of diversity of our church, our community, our state. In 2012, Vermont was ranked as the second-whitest state in the country, falling just behind Maine and just ahead of New Hampshire, with more than 96 % of our population identified as white. This is not a criticism, or at least not one from which I can stand apart—I grew up here too. I’ve lived a life of such white privilege that I often don’t recognize racist jokes or slurs, and that I commit racist actions, on occasion without recognizing what I’m doing. It’s taken me years to come to see and understand white privilege, to acknowledge and see how my life is different because of the color of my skin, and how people make assumptions about me—almost always favorable—based on their perception of my ethnicity.
(example, ABC’s show “what would you do”- actors “stealing” a bike. The white actor is confronted once; the black actor by a crowd almost immediately. A pretty woman is assisted… Video from YouTube)
Steeped in privilege as so many of us are—the privilege of being white, or middle class, or from a loving home, and the list goes on—steeped in privilege as we so often are, it is our responsibility to recognize when and where we have privilege and power, and are therefore called to give it away.
That makes us turn to Jesus’ apparent motivation in telling this parable. We are familiar with the story, and we so often focus on the compassion and charity of the Good Samaritan. Sometimes we look beyond to the greater justice issue, standing yet again in the legacy of MLK when he said in “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church, “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.” In fact, in saving this text until after our guest preacher, this was what I had initially planned to preach about.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying to the lawyer who asks him this question about what it means to be a neighbor. That is not the point of the story. Not today.
We are not the Good Samaritan. We want to be. We strive to be. We name our homeless shelter—that we keep in another town so we don’t have to look at it—after the Good Samaritan, but that is not us. And this isn’t a parable about how to be the Good Samaritan, or how to cultivate charity in our hearts.
We are not the robbers, whose situation we don’t know, what deprivation and fear they faced in their lives. We are not George Zimmerman. We are not, today, in this story, reflecting on the violence we do in our lives. That’s a powerful and important reflection, but it is not the point of the parable.
We are not the man on the road, the child walking back from the convenience store, robbed and beaten and left to die, stalked and shot and dead on the ground at 17. We are not Trayvon Martin. In the days after his death, and again after the Zimmerman verdict, some people began posting pictures of themselves in hoodies and captioning or hashtagging “I am Trayvon Martin.” But then someone else began a tumblr—a site to share pictures and thoughts on a single theme or idea—entitled “We Are NOT Trayvon Martin.” People there post their recognition that none of us are actually this young man, and many non-black folks reflect on the privilege and safety they and their children enjoy, which the Martin family does not. It becomes an opportunity to confront the white privilege I mentioned earlier, and to reflect on the disparity and brokenness of our society. None of us, not even those of us of color, are Trayvon Martin. Some of us could be, or our loved ones could be. Be we are here and whole and alive. And so we cannot appropriate his experience or his family’s loss. Jesus is not talking to Trayvon Martin, to the boy on the sidewalk, the man on the road to Jericho.
Jesus’ caution to us, to us all, to all his listeners, to the lawyer that asked him the question, is that we are the priests. We are the judges, the police, the mild mannered citizens, the members of the jury, the neighbors failing to be neighborly, the travelers on the road, who see the man bleeding out on the pavement, and pass by on the other side.
Because we are busy. Because we are afraid. Because we are complacent. Because we have seen it too often. Because we have seen it not enough. Because we benefit from the privilege we have, we swim and breathe in it as a sponge in the ocean. And we don’t need to concern ourselves with children lying in pools of blood. We pass by on the other side.
We live and work and flourish in a system that is flawed and unfair and broken. A system that defends itself, protects itself. A system that last week did not fail. It worked. It worked to protect George Zimmerman, and the Stand Your Ground Law and the status quo and the culture of fear and violence and its very self.
It failed the Martin family but it’s not meant for them.
Anymore than it’s meant for Marissa Alexander, age 31, convicted in May 2012, three months after Trayvon Martin was shot, and about the time when Zimmerman’s plea of not-guilty was accepted at his arraignment, Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, when she fired a warning shot into the ceiling, in an attempt to get her abusive estranged husband to leave her home. Like Trayvon Martin, she is black. Like George Zimmerman, she pled not guilty and her defense argued that she “stood her ground” in a life threatening situation. Like neither, she will see her next birthday—and, unless there is a successful appeal, about 19 more of them—in prison.
Whole systems pass people by on the other side. Is there any wonder that children hold signs like these at vigils in remembrance of Martin? “Black Life Matters.”
There is something I notice about the parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus doesn’t give us any detail about the person on the road to Jericho, except to say that he is male, I suppose. We do not know the color of their skin, or what they were wearing, or whether or not the robbers felt the person was “a threat.” Jesus does not pause to make a case that the person beaten by the roadside is of sacred worth. It is presumed, as a given, that all people are sacred, that all people should not be passed by. This needs no argument. Not for Jesus. And for those who would live as his body in the world, not for us.
Black Life Matters. Life of all colors and ages and orientations and economic statuses and faiths and abilities matters. Jesus is asked to clarify what it means to be a neighbor—and there the distinctions matter, come into play. There it matters that the Samaritan, with very little privilege or power, gives what he has to the aid of a person in need, while the privileged, powerful, pious elite pass by on the other side. But when it comes to who the people in trouble are, who the people whom we must not pass by ARE, it does not matter. They are people, and that is all we need to know. Need is indifferent to color and status and privilege. The call to act is not. Those who have the greatest power and privilege are called to give it up on behalf of… on behalf of anyone. No distinctions, no exceptions.
Who do we see and value? Who do we rush to help? Who can we not leave on the roadside? Jesus assumes we already know the answer, and I think deep down we do. Everyone. In Christ’s eyes, in God’s eyes, we are all of sacred and profound worth, and we are called to see that in one another.
We, Jesus warns, are the ones with the power. The power to protect ourselves and our culture of fear and violence and the status quo. Or the power to lay down what we have for any single person in need, any creature suffering. The story, the reminder, is for us. There is no excuse. May we open our eyes, and never, or to the best of our ability never again, pass by on the other side.