In the parable of the good samaritan, when a well-meaning but legalistic, literal-minded young man asks Jesus who this neighbor is that he is supposed to love as his own self, Jesus says, “the one in the ditch.” I want to imagine this look on Jesus’ face, always loving yes, but also occasionally with that little slant in his eyes that he gets when Peter asks him another dumb question, where he’s like, “come on now, you know the answer to this one -who are you supposed to love? Go love the one in the ditch.” It seems so obvious, and yet obviously it’s not. We spend hours, lifetimes really, wringing our hands over what the right course of action might be in any number of our affairs, some small percentile of which might actually have to do with what God is doing in our lives, and really, Jesus seems to say, it’s actually all so simple. Go help that man out of the ditch.
The fact that this obvious point has to be stated so explicitly is no mystery to me. I’m a priest, after all, and I know why the priest in that story passed on by the ditch so quick he hoped everybody else probably thought he just didn’t see it. I’m sure that priest had a committee meeting he was late for. I’m sure that priest only had fifteen minutes to get his lunch and wasn’t about to let his strict boundaries for self-care get punctured by some one more person in need. I’m sure he had his reasons, like we all do. One of those reasons might have had to do with why we keep people in ditches in the first place. James Baldwin speaks of this. He speaks of the social ladder we’re often climbing and how we know where we are on that ladder by knowing exactly who is beneath us on it. The ones at the bottom are almost taboo, like if we even look at them we might loose our footing and fall all the way down to where they are, become as worse off as them, get sick like them. And so we look away. We look away from the man who hasn’t showered in weeks fumbling with his bags of things in the corner of the Starbucks even as his existence bolsters up our own.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, when a well-meaning but legalistic, literal-minded young man asks Jesus who this neighbor is that he is supposed to love as his own self, Jesus doesn’t talk about the neighbor who is living in the house next to him in the same neighborhood he can afford Jesus talks about the one who is dying in the streets of the city. So who is dying in ours? Who is in the ditch this week? Who is our neighbor that we are called to love as our own self?
In the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, one a proud father of five, the other a mentor and role model to many more children than that in the school where he worked, we do not simply see the unfortunate actions of a few stressed cops with poor judgement, we see a symptom of a vast system which has been designed from the bottom up to keep some folks in the ditch while others climb up over them. In the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile we do not simply see isolated events but a pattern that continues to occur, like poison slowly rising up from the deep which some have only just begun to notice dotting the surface of the water, just as the most recent mass shooting of police officers in Dallas is not an isolated event but a pattern of mass gun violence which continues to rise and spread and consume us.
The poison in the water, the speckled flecks disturbing the surface which some are only just beginning to notice while others have been warning of it for years, is a rich, thick soup of sewage which we have been trying to ignore since we started dumping it, and one of the main ingredients in that poison is white supremacy. The fact that our nation was built on land stolen from indigenous people with labor stolen from people of color. The fact that even when freedom was offered to/wrenched away from us by people of color reparations for all the labor we had already stolen from them up to that point were not. The fact that when slavery ended we did not begin with a clean slate, but with one group of folks who had gotten to where they were by standing on the backs of another group of folks who now had to begin with nothing. The legacy of this poisonous filth, this sewage of white supremacy has inked the surface of our public life ever since then. When we look back in time it seems so easy to recognize, it looks like white men in white hoods standing around while black men hang from trees. But the question Jesus asks of us now is do we recognize it in our own life today? Not do we recognize the one in the ditch fifty years ago but do we recognize our neighbor in the ditch today? Can we see white supremacy under a new mask and hood? Can we see it in the fact that we live and breathe in a whole criminal justice system from congress to the prison industrial complex which makes it seven times more likely for a black man to be prosecuted and imprisoned for the same kind of crime his white counterpart has committed? Can we see it in the fact that black families coach their black children on how best to comply with the legal system while white families rarely give this a second thought? Can we see white supremacy in the ease which most of us have in navigating the thousand minor tasks of daily public interaction while the neighbor who is dying in the ditches of our streets is six times out of seven a person of color?
When a well-meaning but legalistic, literal-minded young man asks Jesus who this neighbor is that he is supposed to love as his own self, Jesus tells a story of a man who takes what he’s been given and goes over to the one in the ditch who needs it, and says, what can I do to help? What can we do to help our black brothers and sisters as they continue to endure the brunt of poisonous white supremacy which we have created, which we continue to reap the benefits from and which infects us all? We don’t need to argue about the ditch, the person in the ditch doesn’t need platitudes or greeting card condolences or -heaven forbid- our opinion about what they may have done or not done differently to get there, the person in the ditch just needs to get out. And love is the hand that reaches out to help at the peril and price of getting stuck right down there beside them. The sin of white supremacy is white America’s sin to repent of. What is needed is not our guilt but our responsibility and our power to make it better. What new laws and systems of accountability are needed? To whom should we be listening? What acts of kindness can bring more grace and relief to the lives of our black friends and neighbors and strangers all around us? Where can we use our great power to be advocates? Where can we speak up and demand change?
These questions are not merely a moral responsibility, they are our salvation. For the good news of Christ crucified is that the very one who is telling this story ends up in the ditch himself. Jesus is the one in our story who gets left for dead. In Jesus, the one in the ditch becomes the one in whom new life begins. The Christian must go to the ditch because that is where his God is. The Christian goes to the cross because she finds Jesus there. When James Baldwin wrote about the American social ladder which wants to help white folks to the top by keeping black folks at the bottom, he said, “No one in the entire world knows Americans better or loves them more than the American Negro. This is because he has had to watch you, outwit you, deal with you, and bear you, and sometimes even bleed and die with you, ever since we got here, that is, since both of us, black and white, got here -and this is a wedding. Whether I like it or not, or whether you like it or not, we are bound together forever. We are a part of each other. What is happening to every Negro in the country at any time is also happening to you.” The heart of our nation, poisoned as it is by its own unjust beginnings, is lying bleeding in the ditches of our city streets in the bodies of black lives. Our Lord and our life is with them, and our lives will not matter until the day that theirs do. May Jesus take us both by the arms of love and raise us up to that new world where our union will be perfected in solidarity, and courage, and love.