• Liz Ullery Swenson

Who Is My Neighbor? | Luke 10:25-37


As we drove up the winding two-lane road an hour outside of Asheville North Carolina, I was prepared to loose cell phone reception. I had told Lucy that if she didn’t hear from me not to assume to worst, that I was just outside of phone reception for a couple days and I would call on Sunday. I was prepared for the loneliness that might come from not being able to share the awesome experience, the music, the speakers poignant comments with all of my friends. When I went into the woods without cell phone reception I was prepared to miss Lucy, to miss you all, to feel disconnected and out of the loop. I hoped it might also force me to be fully present, something I often struggle with, no distractions, just me in the woods. What I was not prepared for was what I would come back to. I was not prepared for the chorus of chimes and buzzes my phone would make as we descended down that windy road and my phone regained function.

You see, when I went into the woods Pokemon was a washed up game from the early 2000’s, in the company of Furby and Nano pets.

When I went into the woods Alton Sterling was still alive.

When I went into the woods Philando Castile was still alive.

When I went into the woods five Dallas police officers were still alive.

It is a lot to come back to, the reality I was reentering was a tough one. Not necessarily more tough than when I went into the woods, but the alternate reality that I had become comfortable with included brave conversations about how we name and dismantle white privilege, it included a radical and true interpretation of the social justice movement Jesus started and was eventually killed because of. It included dancing with the Indigo Girls and taking communion on the banks of the river, the bread that was broken was a loaf of rustic bread from a local bakery and the wine that was poured was moonshine, of course, because we were in the mountains for North Carolina after all.

And even though just a few miles further down the road was a house decked out in confederate flags, on that sacred ground, in that brave space, with those 3,500 people, together we lived as if the kin-dom of God was breaking through right there on that river bank.

So when I came back down that mountain road, the reality that awaited me, that awaited all of us, was particularly harsh and heartbreaking.

When I went into the woods Alton Sterling was still alive.

When I went into the woods Philando Castile was still alive.

When I went into the woods five Dallas police officers were still alive.

Our national conversation about white privilege and the value of black and brown human lives started long before Trayvon Martin was killed and the #BlackLivesMatter movement was started by three african-american queer women, it started long before schools were desegregated, or the civil rights march, long before slavery was abolished and even before Europeans created the constructs of race, separated black and white, human and less-than-human. 2000 years ago, give or take, Jesus was asked a question by a religious scholar and lawyer who wanted to test him.

The man asked what he had to do to be a part of the beloved kingdom. Jesus asks him what the religious texts say the man has to do, and so the man replies; “You must love God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” But being unsatisfied with this answer and wanting to find a loophole, he presses Jesus again, “but really, who is my neighbor?”. Who, exactly, do I have to love? Please Jesus, just give me the list of the “neighbors” and the “not-neighbors”. Maybe the neighbors could even wear a pin so I can recognize them?

Then Jesus tells a story;

A young black man was walking down the street, headed across town. Along the way, someone felt threaten by his presence and shoots him and leaving him for dead on the side of the road.

A good christian is walking on the opposite side of the road and when he sees the man injured and bleeding, he offers his thoughts and prayers as he picks up his pace and just keeps walking.

A pastor is driving to church down the same road, she sees the man injured and bleeding, and she too offers thoughts and prayers and promises to light a candle on the church alter as she drives right past him.

A young latino immigrant is driving past, he sees the man and he pulls over and helps the man, loading him into his car and driving him to the hospital. Offering what money he has to help make sure he gets the care he needs.

Jesus ends by asking, which of these was a neighbor to the young black man? Which of these is our neighbor? I adapted this story from the book of Luke, if you didn’t already figure that out. The cast of characters in the version that is written down in the Bible, the man, a Jewish man, is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, a dangerous 18 mile journey, with a significant elevation change. His Jewish identity is important to the story. On his journey he is attacked by robbers, who strip him and beat him and leave him for dead. This route is major thoroughfare, not the freeways that we know today, but it was the only road that connected two major cities, it was well used by merchants and travelers of all kinds. So the man is left for dead in the ditch by the road. The first person who sees him is a priest. a Jewish priest, a holy man who preaches and teaches, the second person who sees him is a Levite, a religious leader from the tribe of Levi. Both of these men are Jewish leaders in their community and teachers of religious beliefs. They both walk by him. This is important because you’ll recall that the person who asked jesus the question was also a jewish religious leader. The third person to walk by the man in the ditch is a Samaritan. The samaritan man was from the city or region of Samaria and while some of their cultural and religious customs were the same as Judaism they practiced it differently and so the Jewish culture considered them to be less-than, they looked down on them, they avoided them all together. And so that it was the Samaritan man who stopped and helped the injured man, picked him up from the ditch, dressed his wounds, put him on his own donkey and walked him to a inn, where he then paid for two months of care for the man to heal, that is remarkable.

This story has been re-told in many variations and adaptations, and it is easy for us to assume that we would be the Samaritan, the one who helps the injured man, but what if because of our insecurity and discomfort with our own privilege, we have inadvertently become like the well intentioned christian, the pastor, the Levite or the Priest? What if we recognize the injustice of racism and white supremacy but we don’t talk about it, we don’t show up at rallies, we don’t change how we interact in the world and instead offer prayers and light candles as more sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers, cousins and friends are killed.

What if we allow ourselves to believe the justifications, “They thought he might have been armed”, “I heard he stole a pack of gum”, “The officer was sure he was reaching of a gun”, when in fact he is only guilty of walking, driving, living while black, living while brown. The institutions and social structures that have propelled us here were not created over night, and they certainly are not singular issues.

White supremacy is promoted through lack of funding for education, through lack of pubic services like clean safe drinking water, public transportation, living wages, home loans, and access to a bank account, basic tenets of American life that have been systematically prohibited to people and communities of color and so through decades and centuries of oppression and inequality, as a nation we have successfully de-humanized anyone who isn’t fair skinned. We have white washed history, we have even white washed the Bible and Jesus to justify treating people of color as less than human.

In doing so, when we look down on, devalue and disregard black and brown bodies, we are disregarding the Divine God who created them. This story of the Good Samaritan is not some Sunday school nursery rhyme, it is about Black Lives Mattering. This story from Jesus is his impassioned speech into a bullhorn at a rally, a wake-up call to all of us to name that black and brown lives matter. We must say it out loud because maybe if we say it often enough, loud enough, our laws, practices and ways of living will reflect the inherent value of each and every beautiful life.

I don’t know how to fix my white privilege. I don’t know how ensure that every person of color is valued and safe even in my own town, but I do know how to have brave conversations. I know how to create space to allow others to enter into brave conversations even when we are uncomfortable and we would much rather offer prayers and light candles. So, I invite you to join me in conversations. Imperfect and uncomfortable, but I know that I can no longer just walk by.


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