I once met a Samaritan man at Jacob’s Well in the Palestinian city of Nablus which is home to about 500 of the one thousand or so remaining Samaritans. He was an outsider among outsiders. He is neither a Palestinian nor an Israeli, he is not a Christian, a Moslem or a Jew. He is a stranger in his homeland.
When we read the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) today from our Twenty-first century Christian perspective we typically identify with the role of the Samaritan and proudly claim those in need as our neighbor. This morning I want to reconsider who the neighbor is in this parable and I want to suggest that identifying with the Samaritan implies a mandate we may not be aware of.
In considering the parable of the Good Samaritan we have to begin with a look at what is signified by declaring him “Good”. Like the Samaritans of today, the Samaritans of Jesus’ day were outsiders. Despite their centuries long claim to the land and their adherence to the Torah they were not welcomed as children of Israel; they were outcasts not Jews. In the Book of Sirach, Ben Sira writes: “My whole being loathes two nations, the third is not even a people:*The inhabitants of Seir* and Philistia, and the foolish people who dwell in Shechem. (Sirach 50:25-26)” The “foolish people” who are “not even a people” are the Samaritans. The parable is the story of the “Good” Samaritan because the Samaritans as a people were not seen as Good. Good is used here pejoratively like it is sometimes used today racists- like the man I met last summer in Voluntown who referred to the “Good” Black people he knew in contrast with the “bad” majority.
In the story a lawyer questions Jesus about what he needs to do to inherit eternal life and thus foreshadows what the rich man will ask Jesus in chapter 18. Unsatisfied with Jesus’ response to love God with all his heart mind and soul and his neighbor as himself the lawyer, being a lawyer, further interrogates Jesus by asking who is his neighbor. Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan and we all assume that Jesus is making the case that the wounded man is the neighbor. But that is not Jesus’ point. On redirect Jesus interrogates the lawyer asking who was neighbor to the wounded traveler: the priest, the Levite or the Samaritan? In doing so Jesus is redefining neighbor. Presumably the priest and the Levite, and the lawyer as well, were using the law to conclude that the wounded man was not their neighbor. Jesus, though, wants to define neighbor as someone who is an agent of compassion. The neighbor is not one who needs help, the neighbor is one who helps those in need.
The Samaritan, despite his status as a stranger and maybe even an enemy, is the neighbor in this story because he acted with compassion toward someone in need. The Samaritan came to the aid of the wounded traveler because through his status as a despised outsider he had a different perspective on the situation. He literally saw things differently because of his outside and subordinated status. To use a sociological term, his social location as a member of an oppressed group engendered in him an analysis of the situation that did not rely on the laws that codified his oppressed status. As someone who knew oppression he could identify with the suffering of the man in the road, and he knew that the right thing to do was to be in solidarity with the man by offering assistance. Laws may keep us from doing wrong, but love prompts us to do justice.
In 1996 a small group of Ku Klux Klansmen had a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were met by three hundred righteously indignant anti-Klan protestors. At some point the protestors noticed a man in their midst with Nazi SS tattoos and a Confederate flag shirt. The group transformed from a gathering of protestors to a mob. They chased the man, threw him to the ground and began kicking him and beating him with sticks. At that point an 18 year old Black woman named Keshia Thomas separated herself from the throng and threw herself on top of the man to protect him from the beating. Sit with that for a moment: a young Black woman risked her personal safety to protect a man who was her self-acknowledged enemy.
Through the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus is extending the Great Commandment to include love of enemy by showing that by acting compassionately we transform our status from enemy to neighbor. This holds true regardless of whether our former enemy accepts us as neighbor in turn. How we respond to someone in need; be they a stranger, a wounded man, a beggar or an enemy, is between God and us. What that person does with our response is between God and them.
In the story of Keshia Thomas we clearly see the parable of the Good Samaritan replayed in real life. Keshia is the Good Samaritan; maybe some of the Klansmen that day went on to refer to her as the Good N…..
In this rendition of the Good Samaritan the Klansman is the wounded traveler and he represents white America- not in so far as white Americans are taking a beating these days- despite a recent study by Harvard University that found “whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America”. No, the Klansman represents white America in that he is a white male in a racist, sexist society. Let me explain. I am not saying that all white people are racists or that all men are sexists.
I am saying our society is both Racist and Patriarchal, which means that our society is White dominated, white centered and white identified as well as being male dominated, male centered and male identified. (see: The Gender Knot by Allan Johnson) To be white and male dominated means most positions of authority in our society are occupied by white men: think about Congress, CEOs, religious leaders, the legal world, the medical world and higher education.
To be white and male centered means the primary focus of attention in our society is on men and white people. To illustrate this just consider the Academy Awards or Hollywood films in general. Very few films have two or more women in central roles who do more than talk about the leading man, and if a film has a woman lead or more than a token number of Black actors they become chick flicks or Black movies. Whereas movies that have a white male as the protagonist are accepted as portraying the human condition (Interstellar, Dances with Wolves, All is Lost). That is, the particular experiences of the dominant group, white males, is elevated to a universal experience.
To be white and male identified means that our core cultural ideas as Americans about what is good, preferable, or normal are associated with masculinity and whiteness. An obvious example of this is so-called good hair which means long, straight hair, that is, white hair. There is a new beauty store in our neighborhood that is actually called Good Hair– it sells toxic hair straightening chemicals and weaves of hair imported from India. Millions of dollars are spent annually by black women in America as they try to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards.
Despite my saying explicitly that the Klansmen stands in for White America not because he is a racist but because he is white and male in a society which has historically privileged whites and men I’m guessing that every white person hearing me is at least uncomfortable with the analogy. We want to be the Samaritan, we want to be the good guy in the story. But here’s the thing- we have to remember that the Samaritan is the despised outsider. The Samaritan knew how to be neighborly precisely because he was a persecuted outsider. In the wake of her heroism Keshia Thomas was derided by the protestors as a “race traitor”. For white Americans to identify with the Samaritan we need to be prepared to be called race traitors by our white friends and families.
The notion that the Samaritan acted differently because he saw things differently and that he saw things differently because he inhabited a subordinated social location is the central thesis of the work being done by professor Patricia Hill Collins at the University of Maryland. Collins argues in her work on Black Feminist Epistemology that if America is to become its promise, that is the land of the free, we must act differently to root out systems of oppression that privilege men, white people, straight people and wealthy people at the expense of Black and Brown people, women, gay and lesbian people and the poor. But in order to act differently we must first think differently. However to think differently we need to acknowledge that knowledge is first produced by our lived experiences.
Obviously the lived experiences of men and white people are very different than those of women and Black people, and so to think differently we need to also see differently. Now, as a white man I cannot change my social location, I will always be a white man, but I was able to change my perspective by changing my geographical location. By moving into the north end of Hartford twenty three years ago in search of authentic relationships with poor persons, Black and Brown persons, I began to see things differently. “Elsa Barkley Brown
New lines of vision inevitably produce new insights. For example my understanding of how our system of mass incarceration has racist underpinnings began by seeing things I would not have seen if I didn’t live where I do: like witnessing a Black teenage boy handcuffed and on his belly being beaten by a half dozen police officers. I’ve seen the children I work with in handcuffs because the police couldn’t believe the bikes we gave them weren’t stolen; hassled by the police for walking in groups of three; and arrested for trespass on the front porch of the buildings they live in because the landlord has painted this warning on the front door: “No Loitering, No Trespassing, Police Take Notice, Tenants Included.”
If we want to honestly identify with the Good Samaritan we must actively pivot our centers by seeking out authentic relationships with oppressed persons because through these relationships we will see the world differently. Instead of being blinded by the privileges we may enjoy because of our membership in the white race, the male gender or the upper class we will see oppression in action by witnessing the suffering that is the bitter fruit of our privileges. It was their status as double outsiders, as Black women, in a racist and patriarchal society that sparked epiphanies in Keshia Thomas and Patricia Hill Collins. Likewise Womanist writers like Alice Walker and bell hooks, and womanist theologians like Katie Cannon and Delores Williams, all Black women, are providing critical insights about our society, hope, and the struggle for liberation precisely because through their double outside status they see the world differently. And consider the three women who launched the Black Lives Matter movement: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, it should come as no surprise that these women are likewise Black women, in fact two of them are triple outsiders as they self-identify as being queer.
With the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus is urging us to seek solidarity with those who are oppressed because in so doing we will see the world differently. We will more clearly see the effects of racism, poverty and violence and through authentic relationships with oppressed communities we will be in a better position to act compassionately and struggle collaboratively for justice and liberation. Finally, by transforming the meaning of neighbor from a community member in need of charity to someone who acts with compassion towards anyone in need, Jesus has answered the lawyer’s initial question about how to gain eternal life by telling the lawyer to go and do the same as the Samaritan. We must go and be merciful towards those who have suffered under our oppression and together we must struggle for liberation.
You know, for what it’s worth I’m hoping president Obama nominates a poor, Black woman to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court. If he is need of some candidates I know plenty of women in the north end of Hartford that could fill that seat with a wisdom of experience the court has never had.