Won’t You Be a Neighbor?
Yesterday was my grandmother’s 96th birthday. Her name is Blanche Juanita. Like me she has a useless first name and goes by her middle name. And that is usually shortened to Nita, though in the not very attractive North Carolinian accent of my family, it sounds like “Neeter”. I’ve been thinking about her lately. In the wake of my mother’s illness this year, I’ve been taking over more of my grandmother’s affairs. She suffers the effects of vascular dementia and lives in a nursing home in Burlington, North Carolina.
While her understanding of the present is foggy at best, her memory of the past seems fairly clear. She finds it easiest to dwell on the past and remember her years as a girl. She was the 8th child of 10. Her parents were tobacco farmers in Guilford County, North Carolina with no more than a third grade education. They were, in turn, the children of farmers with little to no education, and so on back as far as anyone can remember. Probably her people came from England where they were also poor farmers without much education. One generation following another, living, as they can, off the land, then bringing up the next generation to do the same.
Some of my grandmother’s stories from her childhood have to do with her very interesting neighbors. Just over the hill from their farm was the Palmer Memorial Institute, a prep school for black students led by Charlotte Hawkins Brown1. Brown, an African American educator and activist, had been born in North Carolina, moved north, had gotten her education and had raised money from northern benefactors to open the school in the small town of Sedalia, North Carolina. Though she often was forced to portray the school as a vocational programs in the model Booker T. Washington put forward, her students learned Latin, French, and music. My grandmother and her siblings were first exposed to classical music listening to concerts at the little school over the hill.
I’ve always loved my grandmother’s stories about going to the school. I loved the idea of the white farmers’ kids learning about music and literature from the black neighbors receiving better education than my family could ever dream of attaining. However, for me the story of these neighbors ends there. I never found out what happened to the neighbors who played the music and read dramatic readings, who introduced my grandmother to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.
I know what happened to my grandmother. She was the first in her family to receive any education past high school. She was also, along with her siblings, part of the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history. After generations of poor farmers, she and her family got lifted up by the great wave of the New Deal and the Federal Housing Authority. Though my great grandparents had not owned land, all of their children became home owners, a couple of them even became rich. Even my grandmother, a single mother at age 23, what is sometimes called a broken home, bought her own house at age 27, thanks to federal intervention in the housing market.
The neighbors at the Palmer School would not be so lucky. The same wave that lifted my grandmother would drown others. Roosevelt’s New Deal depended on support from the segregated south and blacks were largely cut out of it altogether. In fact, it is entirely fair to say that the New Deal’s success was predicated on the exclusion of African Americans. Their Latin and French and Shakespeare would not protect them from redlining (the federal and private practice of preventing blacks from home ownership or from moving into white neighborhoods. As white America got richer, blacks were kept behind on purpose. The Palmer School is a museum now. It closed in the 1970s; you can visit it on your next trip to Sedalia, North Carolina. The state currently ranks 47th in the nation in education.
Our history is so close to us; it is in our families, in our lived experience. And some of it is painful. Last week, we listened to the best parts of our nation in excerpts from our founding documents2, our hearts surely swelled with pride to think we were a part of the American experiment is self-determination and equality, so we do not get to excuse ourselves later in the week when we see, once again, that racism is alive and real in the slayings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. And that there is horrible, death dealing rage that exploded violently against police officers in Dallas. Our hearts should shudder with shame. Just as honor and patriotism and courage is our legacy as Americans, so is white supremacy that has been plundering black wealth since long before the Declaration of Independence.
This reality will not go away if we ignore it. Three years ago on this weekend, preachers preparing for their task would be reading the text of the Good Samaritan in the light of the verdict of George Zimmerman on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Martin, like the man in Jesus’ story, met trouble on the road. He met a neighbor of sorts. Zimmerman, a self-appointed protector of the neighborhood, recently sold the gun he used to kill Martin for $250,000.3
When we hear a story about neighbors and what our ethical obligations are to people who might be neighbors, it is impossible not to think of our fraught and shameful history with regards to race. The neighbors Jesus chooses to highlight in his parable also have a fraught and shameful history. We sentimentalize the story of the Good Samaritan and we try to be “Good Samaritans” ourselves; basically a nice person. But a first century Jewish audience would have found Jesus’ words much more shocking. A Samaritan was an enemy, an oppressor. They shared ancient roots with Israelites, but were deeply other. Remember a couple of weeks ago when the disciples asked if they should call down fire upon a Samaritan village.
Jesus answers a lawyer’s question about the scriptural requirements about love of neighbor. “Just who is my neighbor,” he asks, trying to justify himself. Jesus could have said, “everyone is your neighbor!” but he didn’t. He told a story that led the lawyer to say the Samaritan was the neighbor, though he could not form his mouth to say the word, saying only, “the one who showed mercy.” Jesus might as well have said “Samaritan lives matter.” He found the limits of the lawyer’s love and pushed him to that limit.
What are the limits of our compassion? Again, if we are to lay claim to a shared legacy of pride in our national history of democracy, we must also come to claim our legacy of plunder and oppression. Our black brothers and sisters are dying, dying because they are black and white America has been passing over to the other side of the street. Trying to justify ourselves we might ask, “well who really is my neighbor? Not the guy hustling CDs in the parking lot, right? Not the guy with the broken tail light who has been pulled over 52 times, right?”
But the lens of a parable is disorienting. Who has been robbed and lies bleeding on the side of the road? Look closely and see that it is we who are white Americans who have been robbed; our legacy of oppression has robbed us of our full humanity and our empathy. It is we, it is me, who is hurt and are unable to continue on my way.
Knowing our loss, knowing our responsibility won’t save us. The lawyer in the story asks Jesus a question of theology. In other words, “how should I think about this?” Jesus responds with a statement of ethics “here’s what you should do about this.” See the emphasis on “doing” at the end of the parable: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” the lawyer answer, “The one who showed mercy.” “Go and DO likewise,” says Jesus. The theology is active. To know is to do.
This is good news. Doing something matters and change is possible. Think how amazing it is that we as a nation decided to invest in opportunity for people like my grandmother and many, many cycles of poverty and ignorance were broken in the space of just her lifetime. Look at the Dallas police department. By all accounts they were doing everything right, before the unfettered access to military grade weapons led the murders of five police officers3. Did you see the pictures of smiling cops and protesters? Four years ago the Dallas police ranked as one of the highest per capita rate of officer involved shootings. They decided to do something about it and updated their training programs and committed themselves to transparency.
We can do something as well. We can do the hard work of dismantling our own, mostly unconscious and unasked for, racism. We can demand justice for the deaths of black lives cut short by racism. We can commit to nonviolent resistance offering young people a model of how it is possible, in a violent world, to be at peace. We can organize to stop the unfettered access to guns of any sort at any time.
There is a lot we can do; we are not helpless and we are not hopeless. But the list can go on and it can be overwhelming figuring out where to start. And though Jesus made it clear that “neighbor” is not limited by geography, we might as well start where we are, with the people we are with. Next Sunday, the Cathedral is hosting an event at 4 pm next Sunday: “Racial Reconciliation: What the Church Must Do”. That sounds like a good start. We also have an organizer for the group, “Showing up for Racial Justice”, Michele’s wife, Michelle Dibblee. They have already had one event here at St. Mark’s, and I’m betting they have lots of ideas of what to do.
Friends, the road ahead is dangerous and risky. Acknowledging and taking responsibility for how we hurt and are hurt is risky. But we are not alone. So let’s walk the way together.
2 See the service bulletin for 7.3.16 Lessons in Democracy: A Fourth of July Lessons & Carols