by Scott Wright, Pax Christi Metro DC – Baltimore
Last week, in churches across our nation, people gathered to mourn the senseless killing of two African American men by white police officers in Louisiana and in Minnesota, and the killing of five white police officers by a black sniper in Dallas. Once again our country has been rocked by racial violence as religious and civic leaders and entire communities call for racial justice and reconciliation.
It is an opportune moment to acknowledge how deeply embedded white racism is in our culture and the institutions of our society, and how blind white privilege can make those of us who benefit from it. That privilege is not a badge of honor, or anything of which to be proud. It is consequence of a brutal system that institutionalizes racism and denies some people their human dignity, their physical integrity and their hope for the future based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. Nor does it guarantee a dignified life to those who are poor and white. It divides us according to race and class, rather than unites us based on our common humanity and our heritage as children of God.
Today, there are still too many black children living in poverty. There are still too many schools and neighborhoods that are predominantly black, segregated and poor. There are still too many guns in the wrong hands and too many black people killed by gun violence and by police. There are still too many black men and women incarcerated in our prisons and jails for non-violent offenses. There are still too many black families who are unemployed and living without hope. Black lives matter.
Those statistics cut across all racial lines. There are white children living in poverty and working class white families who are unemployed and living without hope. Yet African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected. A black man is more than twice as likely as a white man to be killed by police, and a black or Hispanic child is more than twice as likely to be poor as a white child.
“When we are afraid, we turn our neighbors into enemies, particularly when they are of another race or practice another religion, and violence is the unspoken or spoken threat to those who do not keep quiet or remain in their place.”
The giant triplets of poverty, racism and war that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about are all entwined, and they are perpetuated by fear. Thomas Merton famously said that the root of war is fear, but he might also have said the root of war is racism, fear of the other. When we are afraid, we turn our neighbors into enemies, particularly when they are of another race or practice another religion, and violence is the unspoken or spoken threat to those who do not keep quiet or remain in their place. We must reverse this process, particularly when demagogues encourage us to regard others who are different as “enemies.” Rather, we must claim them as sisters and brothers, neighbors and friends. Is that not what the Gospel requires, what our common humanity demands?
In many of our churches, the gospel read last Sunday was the story of a young man who asks Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a parable, the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story, a man is beaten by robbers and left by the roadside to die. A priest and a Levite see the man, but do not respond. They are afraid, and go on their way. Only the Samaritan, considered an outcast at that time, stopped, bound up the man’s wounds, carried him to an inn, and paid the innkeeper to take care of him.
It is a story worth retelling and reflecting on, particularly in light of the traumatic events of the past weeks. Who is our neighbor? What does it mean to be a good neighbor?
On the night before he was killed almost 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, retold the story of the Good Samaritan. He was in Memphis to support 1,300 African American sanitation workers on strike, who marched peacefully into the streets each day carrying a sign that read: “I am a Man.” A reminder that what is a stake, then as well as today, is human dignity, and the obligation we all have to treat one another with dignity, for we are all created in the image and likeness of God.
In his retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Dr. King highlighted several lessons we can learn from for today. One of those was that we must not let fear diminish our capacity to demand justice and to be compassionate. The priest and the Levite were afraid, as people are afraid today. African Americans are afraid of the police, the police are afraid of African Americans, people are afraid of each other, and fear is at the root of racism and so many other evils, including war.
“The real question, according to Dr. King, is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” In so many words, black lives matter.”
In Dr. King’s imagination, the priest and the Levite were asking themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” A reasonable question, but from a Gospel perspective, the wrong question. The real question, according to Dr. King, is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” In so many words, black lives matter.
There is a lesson here for all of us, but especially those of us who benefit from white privilege. Racism is a sin bordering on idolatry, a social and institutional evil that has been around for a very long time. Privilege means access to better schools, better neighborhoods, better jobs and better health care. It means not being afraid of the police and taking it for granted that we will return home safe each night. Every generation must grapple with this disparity. I remember growing up in a time when both the hope of the civil rights movement and the despair of major riots in our cities rocked the nation, as the events of these past weeks have troubled our souls. I was the same age then as my daughter is today. I remember Dr. King’s assassination, and the National Guard and tanks in the streets. It was 1968.
We have a responsibility to our children, to all children, and to each other to make sure that people are treated with dignity, that racism is not what defines us as a people, and that violence is not what characterizes our relationship with each other. Rather let justice and compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness and our solidarity those who are at risk be the marks of our character and life as a people.
We need to exercise our capacity for empathy, to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, and to embrace our common humanity even as we recognize our differences. We must never tolerate violence, but exercise our moral imagination and capacity for nonviolence and reconciliation. Above all, we must exercise our capacity for hope, and for giving hope to others.
“Who is our neighbor?” That was the question the young man asked Jesus. That is the question we ask ourselves today. But the parable has a surprising ending. When he is finished telling the story, Jesus asks the young man, “Which of these proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” That, too, is the question we must ask ourselves today: “What must we do to be a neighbor to each other, across the racial and religious boundaries that often divide us?” What must I do with my white privilege to eradicate racism from the culture and institutions of our society, and to affirm my solidarity with my African American sisters and brothers?
The Gospel tells us, and Pope Francis reminds us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out all fear” (1 John 4:18). We must not let our fears define us, but rather mercy and justice, and above all courage. God’s grace will provide the way forward, the choice is ours. Black lives matter.