When the expert on the law asked Jesus “Who is my neighbor,” the lawyer’s intent was to limit his responsibility. Surely his neighbors were only people just like him. But Jesus answered not with a definition but with a parable, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” which taught, among other lessons, that neighbors are not limited by location or ethnicity or religion or anything else.
Trayvon Martin was my neighbor. It is too easy to dehumanize him, call him “gansta,” to focus on the trace amount of marijuana in his system and on his history of fighting and school trouble. But that caricature painted by defense attorneys is surely not all, or even mostly, who he was. Trayvon was a son, a brother, a friend, a child of God. Yes, Trayvon made choices, some of them bad . . . but did any of them really warrant his being profiled as a threat on that night he went out to buy a snack? Did any of them deserve a death penalty?
I hear the protests from those who are as white as I am. “But Trayvon called George Zimmerman a ‘cracker.’ He was the racist.” But the truth is, we need to be concerned with the planks in our own eyes, not the speck in Trayvon’s.
But we’d rather not look inward. I’ve seen many Facebook posts in the past few days that bring up times African-Americans did this and African-Americans did that. Watch out! Watch out any time we have the opportunity to look at our own hearts and our response is “But those people . . . !” That is a sure sign we need to take stock of ourselves, that our pride – our sinful nature – is rising up to re-aim the mirror that should face us squarely.
I grew up in the south in the late sixties and there weren’t any people of color in our lives. The only African American person I can ever remember seeing in my Virginia neighborhood was a maid who took care of a friend of mine during the day. What stood out for me is that he introduced her as “Mary” in a world of southern formality where children were expected to call white adults “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Jones.” Such is the subtle dehumanization of a segregated society.
School – and church – in Virginia were just as monochromatic. And when we moved to Florida where the schools were integrated, church was still a Caucasian bastion. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke truth when he said our country is more segregated on Sunday morning than at any other time. Those words are still true today in most congregations.
If we don’t acknowledge our history, even (especially) in the church, of white privilege and racial division, then we will not be able to have an honest conversation with people of color who are still smarting from the experience, whether theirs personally or of their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
“But they should be over it by now,” we protest.
It is not up to us white folks to decide when it’s time for African-American folks to be “over it.”
I’ve counseled couples where one or the other partner has cheated. There are apologies and changes of behavior, and there often comes a point months later where the spouse who committed the transgression says, “I don’t understand why he/she doesn’t trust me yet. I’ve changed.” My answer is always the same – it is up to the spouse who was the aggrieved party to decide whether and when it’s time to trust again.
For decades African American folks learned not to trust. First came the abomination of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, the lie of “separate but equal,” white resistance to integration, and all along a system that worked, as most systems do, to benefit those in power. Although there were exceptions, power was held almost exclusively by white folks.
We can be thankful that things are better these days, but we must acknowledge that we still have a ways to go. Regardless of any progress, it’s not up to those of us who do not know what it’s like to endure the reality and/or the legacy of racial oppression to decide when it’s time to trust.
It seems to me, what we should do is to listen. Listen to the voices of African American men and women who cry out for justice. Rather than responding, “It’s not so bad,” or, “But your people do” thus and so, perhaps the thing to do is to listen to the pain, to the hurt, to respond with empathy rather than judgment.
We walk to the other side of the road with the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan story when we minimize and refuse to listen. Imagine if the Samaritan’s words on seeing the injured man in the ditch had been, “Oh, it’s not so bad. I’ve seen a lot worse. You’ll be all right. That ditch isn’t so deep. Things are better now, those robbers have gone. It’s time to get over it.”
But Jesus tells another story. It is a story of binding up wounds, of compassion, of agape – love in action. By making the Samaritan the hero, he also reminds us that being a neighbor means learning even from those who are “other,” even from those who are potentially our enemies.
We are called to learn from Trayvon.
And we are called to learn from George.
George Zimmerman is my neighbor as well. He is my neighbor even though I might find his conduct unfathomable. As someone who can’t imagine carrying a gun much less discharging one toward another person, I do not understand his actions. But who am I to judge – although I might be tempted to feel morally superior because I wouldn’t shoot somebody, I have an alarm on my house that, if anyone tries to break in, will summon police who will come with guns on my behalf. They will certainly shoot if necessary to protect me . . . and my stuff. That makes me at least a hypocrite.
It is the plank in my own eye, not the speck in George’s, that I must confront.
In the same way that I must listen to Trayvon, it is vital that I listen to George. To hear the fear that led him to the choices he made on that fateful night, to try to understand what else might have led him to make those decisions. I need to listen to his story, to listen for the roots of his distrust and frustration and perhaps anger that caused him to feel the need to follow and to make sure “another one” didn’t get away.
And I must not given into the temptation to see George simply in the context of this event. In the same way Trayvon was more than his sometimes poor choices, there is more to George than his actions in the confrontation with Trayvon. George is also a son, a brother, a friend, a child of God.
Whether or not the Georges and Trayvons of this world will listen to each other, it is incumbent upon the church to be open to both, to hear and honor their stories. We are called, I believe, to proclaim to the Georges and Trayvons among us that God loves them without limit and without condition. It is up to us to live out that love toward both the Georges and the Trayvons in our midst.
Because Jesus died for George. And Jesus died for Trayvon.
The question for the church is not “Who is my neighbor?” because Jesus has already answered that for us. Both Trayvon and George are our neighbors. The question is, how do we live out the command to “Love my neighbor as myself?”
We are called to love Trayvon as we love ourselves.
We are called to love George as we love ourselves.
That is where we start.