Philando Is My Neighbor
A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
July 10, 2016
Perhaps one of my favorite memes circulating the internet is a video of a little boy, all of two or three, being handed a stick for his first piñata. He stands there holding it uncomfortably as he stares at a facsimile of Spiderman, a colorful papier-mâche figure almost the same size as he is, and he stands there awkwardly holding his stick as his elders egg him on to hit it. He manages two unconvincing and halfhearted pokes before dropping the stick and toddling over to give Spiderman a very convincing hug.
There are a lot of psychological and anthropological studies out there that would argue violence is a learned behavior—that we need to be taught savagery and brutality. So too with hatred—we are groomed with messages often subtle and sometimes not—where to direct our inbuilt existential fear, whom to loathe and detest. Thus it is a sad fact of human existence that we need a hated and feared “other,” some different group of others whom we can demonize and dehumanize in order to preserve our own sense of security and often superiority. The story of this nation includes a healthy dose of this truth. From our founding we have deemed those with darker skin to be more savage, less human, and more to be feared than our lighter skinned brethren. Such a belief allowed us to evict millions of Native Americans from their land, and allowed us to enslave countless millions more Africans to build this great nation. And when we had been shamed for the latter, and slaves were finally free, we very quickly found ways to keep the other as wholly other. We established laws and rules that would keep those with darker skin in their places of servitude. Segregation was the law of the land for so long, the well-worn lines of its original devising can still be seen like a shadow map over the streets and neighborhoods of our cities. And, following desegregation, another system of laws and practices were established to continue to keep us separated. Today segregation comes in the forms of myriad policies and established practices, from the storefronts of payday loans to the privatizing of our penal system and the resulting mass incarceration of millions of black men—we are still today divided along lines of race, and white America continues to profit and prosper. Through it all it has been a steady dose of unremitting violence that has preserved the status quo. First it was the shackles and lash of slavery. Then it was the lynching tree of segregation. Now it is the heavy boot of law enforcement.
Now, lest you think today my goal is to demonize police, let me digress for a moment to say this. The racial injustice in our country today is not the cause of our police force—the vast majority of whom are no more good or bad than you or I in this room today. The problem of racial injustice is actually with you and I sitting in this room today—particularly those of us who are white. It is that we exist in a system which we hire police to maintain, a system which preserves our privilege and which adversely affects black and brown skinned people. The problem isn’t police as people—it is the job we’ve asked them to do. From the war on drugs to quotas to maintaining peace in a community increasingly filled with guns and a growing distrust—the job of policing is in many cases undermining the justice we so wrongly believe it preserves. This week we saw that distrust boil over in the horrific deaths of several police in Dallas. And, deepening the sense of tragedy, it was precisely in Dallas where the police are actively working to deescalate the cycle of violence, implementing policies and practices that have resulted in less racial profiling and police brutality than in most cities around the country. There is no excuse for the killing of our police in Dallas or here or anywhere, just as there is no excuse for the unjustified killing of African Americans by some of those police. No, as our Presiding Bishop reminded us this week, when anyone is killed, whether police or citizen, white or black, we are all justly to be grieved, for each and every one of us is a beloved child of God.
And, you might wonder, what does God have to say about all of this? This Sunday we are given the story of the Good Samaritan—a classic in the Christian tradition.
The great author and preacher Frederick Buechner describes the story like this:
“When Jesus said to love your neighbor, a lawyer who was present asked him to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving one ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something on the order of: ‘A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.’
Instead, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.”
Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan is in a story about a group of outsiders—the Samaritans—being able to practice “neighbor love” or “neighborliness” in a way better than either the religious or civic authorities of Jesus’ day could do it. It has become a classic example of how Jesus expanded the circle to include the “other”, the group whom his hearers had been taught to hate and exclude. It has also become for us, as Buechner notes, a case in point that the gospels call us to serve all people—no matter where we are and how we find them. We are to dig in, and from our meager or abundant resources, to offer help to those who are suffering.
But, there is far more here than these simple moral lessons. As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King preached near the end of his life, being challenged by the story of the good Samaritan extends beyond mere service and seeks to address the very systems and structures of society that would keep us divided from our neighbors of all races and creeds. Preaching at Riverside Church in New York, King said,
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed and that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Many of us are coming to see that the edifice needs restructuring. We are coming to understand what our black brothers and sisters have known for 400 plus years of not having husbands or sons or daughters come home, that the road to Jericho, the road through Baton Rouge and North Minneapolis, the road through Falcon Heights, is in need of transformation. The church cannot sit idly by while our brothers and sisters are being killed for broken taillights and headlights, for hustling cigarettes and CDs, for jaywalking and simply being who they are.
We are learning painfully and slowly what Jesus called us to recognize, that the answer to the question of who is my neighbor includes names like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Jamar Clark, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile.
My friends, our neighbors are dying. The church can and must do better. Let us pray for the wounded and the dead. Let us pray for our city, including our police, our elected leaders and those in authority. Let us pray for the divisions that keep us separated and for the sins of privilege and racism that we often unwittingly uphold. Then, let our prayers move us to action. May we, like the good Samaritan, reach out to those who are suffering, giving of our own resources and out of our own privilege to see that the needs of the broken are being met, that the wounded are mended and the grief-stricken are comforted. And, then, together, let’s get to work with all our neighbors to repair and rebuild this painful and hostile system called the Jericho Road.