Tag Archives: Good Samaritan

Repent: The Gospel Message to Racism, Policing, and Me

John the Baptist, Cameroon

In a rising tide of fists and voices, the path of righteousness is increasingly difficult to find. Whose opinion do I trust? With whose grievance do I side? How do I even think about the events that are taking place around us? Whose narrative is right?

A nuanced understanding is necessary, and I think it is fair to say that no movement or group is going to get everything right. Rather than take sides in yet another polarizing shouting-match, or follow my algorithm-generated news feed (which scrupulously selects and reinforces the slant towards which it knows I lean), I am drawn back into the oddly stabilizing message of John the Baptist, which somehow managed to step on everyone’s toes with leveling conviction.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

No racial group gets to claim special status or immunity from John’s scathing social commentary. In order to be “in” with the King, each had better start by examining where their own life fails to line up with His way of love. This gospel of peace works as an objective, outside perspective, enabling me to first look into it to remove the log from my own eyes, and then to look again to see where others might need to change too.

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

The fruit of repentance looks like sharing whatever I have with those who don’t have it. No discussion of who they are, what they deserve, or whether they align with my particular perspective. No discussion of whether I am an oppressed minority or a privileged majority. We share. We tend and keep. We look out for each other. Why? Because as Jesus would highlight in the racially charged parable of the Good Samaritan, our core identity is as neighbors, not ethnic groups, religious affiliations, social classes, or political parties.

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Luke 3:7-14

But John also had some pointed gospel applications for those “neighbors” with particular forms of power. To their credit, tax collectors and soldiers had come in humility, openly asking how they might align themselves with the way of the Lord. To those with financial power, John applied the law of love to taking only what was right rather than what they could get away with. To those with policing power, John applied the law of love to treating everyone fairly, which includes being careful to find out the facts before accusing anyone. Whether or not these soldiers saw themselves as powerful, the people whose lives hinged on their right use of law and careful use of force certainly did.

I am grateful for the police. I am grateful for the many officers who have corrected me, protected me, and helped me in times of need. They used their power for my good, to the extent that when I see a uniform, I feel safer. But not everyone shares my experience. The children in the community where my youngest child will be attending school tell of how the sight of a policeman strikes them with terror when they are playing in the street. Will this officer accuse them of something and take them away, as they have seen happen with their friends? Will a simple inquiry escalate into a violent arrest that costs them their life, as they have seen through their media feed? Fear and distrust breed reactive behavior, conditioning these children to a fight-or-flight response to the approach of any police officer, whether gentle or aggressive.

“There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.”

There is a talk African-American mothers have to have with their sons, the talk in which they plead with them to avoid any encounter with police and, if approached, to avert their eyes in deference and answer with a simple “yes, sir” or “no, sir.” I have never had that talk with my son, both because he has the experience of being unafraid of the police and because he has the luxury of likely being given the benefit of the doubt if caught in a questionable situation. I cannot imagine the crushing effect a talk like that must have on a young, budding soul. Howard Thurman commented, “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 39).

What change does the gospel require of me?

What is the gospel for these young people? What is the gospel for their mothers, for police officers, for you, for me? What answer would John give each of us if we were amidst the throng asking, “What should I do, then?” I suspect the general idea would be, “Stop fighting to protect your own way of life and start looking out for the interests of others!” That’s universally hard, both because it involves death to self and because it involves waking up to the “other.” It involves being willing to admit where I have fallen short, even when I feel I am being unfairly treated or belligerently accused. And it involves loving people whose agenda may be damaging to my identity, my status, and my way of life. Whoever my neighbor is and however much it might cost me, I don’t get a pass on love.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Luke 18:18-23

The privileged young ruler came to Jesus with a similar question: What change does the gospel require of me? His unwillingness to pay the price for change led him to retreat to the safety of his own home, community, and newsfeed. But in so doing, the price he unwittingly paid was entrance into the Kingdom, where Jesus seeks to bind all people together in the radical way of love.

Beyond Giving Tuesday: A Service that Can’t Be Bought

IMG_0834Am I my brother’s keeper?

In a Christian culture marked by boundaries and balance, we can start to sound like Cain in the way we ask the question. While we are quick to decry abuse, we feel minimal responsibility for those outside the scope of our immediate friends and family. Sometimes even that circle may be too broad. When the chips are down or our resources run dry, we look out for number one.

Of course, we aren’t completely heartless. We remember to include Giving Tuesday in our annual shopping binge. We donate to projects for feeding the hungry, raise awareness for victims of sex-trafficking, and pray for refugees. But somehow our care for our global neighbors manages to stay buffered enough to be safe.

Taking on projects protects us from loving people.

Taking on projects protects us from having to love people. Caring for media-mediated strangers buffers us from being impinged upon by those whose physical and emotional proximity might place unwanted demands on us. We want to manifest God’s love to a hurting world, but we want to do so without getting hurt ourselves.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
John 10:11-13

Though our intent may be to act like Jesus, we end up acting like the hirelings He defined Himself in contrast to. These are the ones who do a good job of caring for the sheep as long as it doesn’t cost them too much. But when the stakes are raised and the job encroaches on their personal time, safety, or sense of well-being, they make excuses and run. At the end of the day, they would rather sacrifice the sheep than be sacrificed for the sheep.

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them.

It was in that sort of crisis situation that Jesus proved the veracity of His love. He didn’t retreat from danger and leave His sheep to fend for themselves. He didn’t save His own hide at the expense of theirs. He lay down His life for those under His care because He saw them as irrevocably connected to Him. His long-term well-being was bound up in theirs. After all, they were His inheritance, not someone else’s.

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
John 21:16

Perhaps the reason we behave like hirelings is that we still think like them. We see ourselves as servants of God, looking out for others on His behalf. And there is an element of truth to that. The people around us are His sheep, precious in His sight. Though we may struggle to value them the way He does, we still feel responsible to care for them out of a sense of obligation to our Master. We prove our loyalty to Him by the way we tend each other.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.You are my friends if you do what I command.

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. …This is my command: Love each other.
John 15:12-17

But the level of commitment God demands of us exceeds the limits of a mere servant. He calls us to love Him with all that we have and all that we are. And He calls us to love each other until it hurts, to take up each other’s financial, emotional, spiritual and physical burdens as if they were our own.

The point is that we are no longer hirelings. No amount of payment could make such personal sacrifice worth it. We are God’s friends, and what’s more, we are His kids. Our status as co-heirs with Jesus means that His sheep are our sheep, His inheritance our inheritance.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

According to our new identity, we have a vested interest in looking out for each other’s interests. We are no longer many individuals each scrambling for survival. We are a conglomerate, individually rooted in and communally bound by God’s Trinitarian love. Whatever hit one of us takes for another, we all benefit from. Whatever need remains unmet in one of us, we all suffer the lack of.

Paradoxically, Cain’s question reverberates through the relational ages and finds expression in our own excuses. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Who is my neighbor?” may get rephrased as “That’s not my responsibility” and “We need to look to our own national security,” but God’s answer remains the same.

As true children of our Father, we are called to look out for those around us as proactively and sacrificially as He does. We are responsible to notice the silently suffering member of our church, to provide for the financially struggling member of our community, and to protect the politically vulnerable member of our race—no matter what it costs us.

This kind of service isn’t for hire. It can only be generated and bound by love.