Racism and the Good Samaritan

I’ve been silent for too long. This blog has been silent, for a variety of reasons I’ve mentioned over the past six months—including that our now-six-month old seventh child, though awfully sweet, remains a pain in the neck at bedtime.

But I’ve also been too silent about issues of race. Now is a good time to break that silence.

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Race has been an important issue for me and my wife. We both grew up in very white places, but have spent our adulthood in poor, urban neighborhoods. We spent the first several years of our marriage in poor, black neighborhoods of white cities, and have spent the last eleven years in a white, working-class, immigrant neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, a predominantly black city. Race has been an issue we’ve had to think about, and we have grown more passionate about it over the years.

But it’s also an issue that is hard for American Catholics, as some recent events have shown. I won’t get into those events, but I will say: I’ve been afraid to speak up as much as I’ve known I should, and it’s time to break the silence.

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My main way of thinking about this issue is in terms of the Good Samaritan. A man is bleeding on the side of the road. In the story Jesus tells, it is irrelevant whose fault the man’s plight is.

The point is that Scripture tells us to love our neighbor. In fact, in Luke 10, it is a “lawyer” (that is, an expert on the Old Testament) who asks Jesus, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer correctly answers, Love the Lord with all your heart-soul-strength-mind, and your neighbor as yourself. When the man asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells the story.

He concludes, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” The lawyer answers correctly, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus says, “You go and do likewise.”

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There’s an important point here about tribalism. The Jews, like all of us—especially Americans today—believed they should love their own countrymen, but hate their opponents. (The Old Law’s command to love your neighbor and hate your enemies was not a command to hate your enemies, it was a command to love at least your neighbor; the lawyer correctly quotes it not as “hate your enemies” but as “love your neighbor.” It was a mitigation of our tendency to hate even the people in our own community. Jesus does not contradict that command, but doubles down on it.)

Jesus scorns the religion of the priest and the Levite in the story, who think they can get away with religious self-righteousness while walking past a suffering neighbor. Commending the Samaritan, he commends someone who, first, is not part of the tribe, not part of the tribalist definition of what a neighbor is. Jesus is insisting that we think of neighbor not in a tribalist way, but in a loving way. Americans today are way too focused on our tribes, including our political parties. Jesus condemns that.

And second, Samaritans don’t worship right. Jesus is slapping us in the face for our tendency to self-referential religion, religion more worried about how nice our vestments are than whether we love God or neighbor. (Look, I care about liturgy—but good liturgy, even Pope Benedict will tell you, is liturgy built on love, not self-righteousness.)

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I like to read Luke as a kind of commentary on Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s teaching culminates in chapter 25, his very last word of his fifth and last sermon, before going to his death: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. . . . I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

I have pondered these words over the years, and more and more they cut me to the quick. They are the greatest condemnation in all of Scripture. People who don’t read the Bible think the Old Testament, or St Paul, is full of fire and brimstone. They are wrong. There is no greater fire and brimstone in all the Bible than in what Jesus says to those who fail to see the man bleeding on the side of the road.

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This is not the place for a lecture on American history, but I believe there is no greater wound in our country than what we have inflicted for the past four hundred years on African Americans. There is no other moment in history—because it was technologically impossible—in which millions of people were brought to a new continent purely to be abused, their every child marked by the color of his skin as a slave. It is one of the great evils of history, and it is certainly the great original sin of our country.

It is a sin that, of its nature, endures, by the brilliant combination of DNA and a visible distinction. Every time a cop pulls over a black man, that man bears in his skin color the mark of centuries of oppression. He is held suspect of every failure of a people born with a knee on their neck. He is held responsible for every time a black kid has responded to that violence with anger.

The coronavirus has killed vastly disproportionate numbers of black people, and the coronavirus economy has had a vastly disproporionate effect on them. There are long books to read and write about the legacy of racism in our country, but we need to look no further than the coronavirus to know that somehow—save the explanation for later, first acknolwedge the fact!—everyone who is born black in this country is bleeding on the side of the road.

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Our Lord tells us, in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, that the path to eternal life (“what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”) is through the man bleeding on the side of the road, because love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. He tells us that those who ignore that suffering “will go away into eternal punishment” because they have refused the Lord himself (“when did we see you?”)

The Good Samaritan is a good way to understand two very different meanings of the word “racism.” White people tend to use that word to mean personal animosity, or even direct action, against black people. If I haven’t kicked any black people today, they say, then there is no racism, and I bear no responsibility. I can walk past like the priest and the Levite.

Black people tend to use the word “racism” not to refer to personal animosity but to a Situation, the situation in which, among so many other things, black people are disproprortionately hurt by the coronavirus and its economy. However we explain the mechanisms of it, the fact is that black people are lying bleeding on the side of the road. It is because of “race”, and one of the meanings of the suffix “-ism”, says the Dictionary, is a “state, condition, or property.” There is an -ism, a condition, a status quo, about race, and it’s a problem: racism.

In the Good Samaritan and in Matthew 25, Jesus is not interested in whether you personally caused the problem. In Christianity, we are not innocent until proven guilty; Jesus does not absolve us of personal responsibility unless we’ve personally caused the man to be bleeding on the side of the road. Everyone who proclaims herself not responsible proclaims herself not a Christian. In Christianity, Jesus demands that we come to the aid of that man whether or not it’s our fault. Because Christanity calls us not to absolve ourselves of responsibility, but to love, with all our heart and mind and soul and strength.

To say it’s not my problem is to fail to love. Jesus condemns that attitude, because eternity without love is hell.

***

Loving requires opening our eyes. It is easy, especially in our suburbanized and polarized country, to cross to the other side of the road and avoid ever seeing the wounded man. Jesus calls us to get out on the road and see people. Read some books. Read some web pages. Come to our cities—get over the horrific lie that places with black people are dangerous—and see what is really going on. Open your eyes and learn to love.

This blog post is the tiniest first step I can make in binding up the wounds of my neighbor. Pray for me to do a lot more.

Please, recommend some good places to learn!

eric.m.johnston

2 Comments

  1. Hi. Thanks for your comeback. I will keep you and your family especially the little one who is having evening issues.
    Would you have any comments about Star Parker’s views on racism in our country? I would be interested in what they would be.
    Thanks….

    • Hi Denise! Thanks for your welcome back, for your prayers, and for an excellent question.

      I don’t know anything about Star Parker beyond vaguely recognizing her name and then a quick google search, so please correct me if I’m misunderstanding your question. But I think I recognize what she seems to be saying: it is a view I used to hold, that I think many of my friends and allies hold, and that I still wrestle with–my wife and I were talking about this just last night. Because this is important, and because I plan to write more about it, I’m going to use my response to your comment as an opportunity to practice explaining my response.

      The argument represented by Star Parker, I think, is that “conservative” policy is pretty much already the solution, and we can ignore the issue of race. (I put conservative in quotation marks because I think Trump has dramatically changed the meaning of that word; read, for example, what Reagan said about immigrants and about crass culture.) Inner-city and black problems, this (Reagan-conservative) position says, come down to the breakdown of the family, the loss of religion and “values” more generally, and welfare policies that undermine work. These things are destroying all of America, but they hit blacks harder because blacks start out a little behind, from back when race actually was an issue. The key now is to fix those problems, which will help everyone. Talking about race is at best a distraction; at worst it encourages black people to focus on the wrong issues, instead of fixing what really needs to be fixed.

      I think much of this argument is true. I do think everyone in America, especially black people, is hurt by the breakdown of marriage, religion, work, and other “values.” I frequently teach a course on Catholic Social Teaching. I summarize my position with a parody of Bill Clinton’s campaign mantra, “it’s the economy, stupid.” I say, “it’s the culture, stupid.” Everything comes down to culture. Culture is the problem, culture is the solution, culture is why we as Christians care about any of these political issues, and it’s the thing we have to offer to heal them. In that sense, I agree with Star Parker (if I’m understanding her), and I agree that much of our political response has to be a continuing fight for marriage and family; for religion, including religious liberty, religious education, and the right of Christians to speak and act in the public sphere; the importance of honest work, not just welfare; and in general the renewal of our culture. So far so good.

      I do think the questions above explain much of what ails black America. But from my experience living in the city, and from my reading, I don’t think it explains everything. There’s more going on. There are problems other than racism; but racism is also a problem.

      Now let me turn the tables: racism is not just a problem for black people. Racism is, above all, a problem for the Church. I think one of Pope Francis’s most incisive lines is this: “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them his friendship, his blessing, his word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith. Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care” (Evangelii Gaudium, 200).

      It’s fine and good to say that black communities are hurt by the breakdown of religion and the family. But that does not explain why our churches are segregated. It does not explain why our ministries focus on the rich and the white. (Ever notice how much energy we put into campus ministry–for the 66% of Americans who ever even try college, and the 35% who stick it out–with more ministry at the more elite colleges, while we’ve abandoned pre-Vatican II ministries to working people and the poor?) In my experience, even religious orders supposedly dedicated to poor neighborhoods don’t make much effort to bring the Gospel to the poor: they focus on rich white people, because it’s more comfortable. My city, Newark, NJ, is full of black Muslims, because Muslims (both of the kooky, Louis Farakhan kind and of the more respectable varieties) send missionaries to urban black people and encourage them to live a godly life based on religion, faithful marriage, and hard work. White Christians, meanwhile, run the way, often spouting the stupidest racist ideas that black people are incapable of conversion. (As I said in the main post, “racist” here need not mean that white Christians actively want to hurt black people; it just means that the Situation is that white Christians avoid black people.)

      I believe the Church is the only thing that can save our society. And I believe segregation hurts the Church. My question is not just what is hurting black people, my question is what is hurting the Church. Whether or not government policies are bad for black neighborhoods does not explain why we as Christians are not in those neighborhoods trying to help. (And I live in a black city, and have lived in others: don’t tell me that white Christians are doing much ministry to black neighborhoods.) Bad government policies does not explain why we accept a segregated Church, or why, contrary to Matthew 25 and the Good Samaritan, we live by a preferential option for the rich and the white. When the world runs for the comfort of the tribe, Jesus tells us to run the other way, to the stranger, the imprisoned, the poor, and the wounded. Everything Star Parker says about social policy can be totally true–I believe most of it is–but it does not absolve us of responsibility to act like Christians.

      I fear that white America, including white Christians, looks for black people who will absolve us of responsibility. We love to hear a black pundit say that we don’t have to worry about this ugly difficult problem of race. But when we, white Christians, do that, we are only imitating the worst slave owners of days gone by, who also liked to have black people around to tell him he was just fine. Black pundits cannot absolve us of responsibility. Our responsibility comes from Christ, and it is a responsibility to love radically, and to seek out the wounded and marginalized. We should hear the cries of those who are hurting, so that we can accurately assess the situation. We should not seek out the black voice that makes us feel comfortable.

      I absolutely agree with Star Parker that we should fight for family, for religion, for work, and for civility. But that fight begins by fighting for a holier Christian community. I don’t think that community is made holier by embracing President Trump’s pornography and violence, but this is not a blog to campaign for or against politicians . . . . I do think we need to be careful about letting secular political parties tell us what parts of our religion to ignore. We, the Church, should be making demands of the parties, not the other way around.

      Along with standard social conservatism, I think we also, as Christians, need to take a hard look at the race issue. We need to read books, educate ourselves about our country–and not just books that make us feel good about ourselves. There’s nothing Christian about feeling good about yourself, and the idea that America has ever been without grave sin, rah-rah America, is anti-Christian. We need to read things that help us examine our conscience, and on a social level, I think that means reading about race, the central sin of American history. We need to go places that make us uncomfortable and talk to the people we tend to avoid. We need to support a politics that takes sin seriously and that fights for a more Christian culture: a culture, yes, that supports family, religion, and work, but also a culture that welcomes the stranger (both black and immigrant) and that is built on love, not on self-righeousness, and certainly not on intentional divisiveness and hate. Why? Because Jesus tells us that we will go to hell if we do not see him in the poor.

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