Race: the current lightening rod for otherness

Two reflections on race

I. Following Easter this year, Al and I took the inside of a week to visit friends in Washington DC. Our friend John is an inveterate day-tripper to places of interest. On one of the days, he had organized a visit to the not commonly known National Building Museum. One of the museum’s permanent exhibits explores examples of innovative and ground breaking town planning projects in a number of US cities; selected as representing bold experiments in community living.

One such project integrated young professional and low-income housing within the same community. The exhibit recorded young professional and low-income residents speaking about the experience of living in an integrated community. Despite a commitment by members of both sets of residents to invest in the success of the experiment, each spoke of tensions resulting from the very different ways each group used the public space.

For the predominantly low-income black families, the common space of the street and the parks provided the venue for social gathering. For the liberally minded, mostly white young professionals, this use of the public space amounted to loitering. They feared and were intimidated by their neighbors differently minded use of the public space, fearing in their neighbor’s exuberant and often noisy outdoor social gatherings the potential for trouble-making. The low-income residents experienced their white neighbor’s anxieties, which often resulted in the calling of the police, as racially motivated attempts to control them.

Communities and individuals tend to stereotype difference. We are acutely aware of this as we experience the world around us during this electoral season. Especially remembering the racial violence of the last week, we see the anxieties about race in particular, surfacing and exhibiting a violent quality we associate with the evils of a more racist past we like to tell ourselves is long gone.

kadir-nelson-the-new-yorker-cover-july-11-2016II. I was particularly struck by the power of the cover of this week’s New Yorker. The New Yorker covers always communicate a complex truth with an ambiguity of suggestion that is open to multiple interpretations.

This week the cover depicted a tall, handsomely physiqued young black man, carrying his son on his shoulders. He is accompanied by two very  pretty daughters, the younger one contentedly eating an ice cream while walking at his side along a white sandy beach. It’s a scene of family summer vacation. It’s a picture of any young American father and his children at the beach, instantly relatable to as if their race is but another one of a number of attractive things about them.

But it’s a picture that is out of time and out of place given current events and larger social trends. Maybe this is its point! It’s a picture of a shared human commonality capable of transcending divisions of class, race, and skin color. I mention class here because it’s essentially a picture of a family free of the trappings of the normal projections of race as a socio-economic class indicator of poverty and crime-ridden community. Instead here, the inference is of an  American dream affluence that enables this black family to enjoy the kind of summer vacation at the beach, normally associated with middle-class, white, family summers.

Gospel reflection

Tribal and communal assumptions

Luke’s Gospel was written to commend early Christianity to the Greco-Roman world. His writing has a universal social appeal that especially speaks to us today because it paints a picture of God as being compassionately concerned with the plight of the vulnerable and outcast. Thus it’s no accident that the two most well-known of all of the parables of Jesus – The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan only occur in Luke’s Gospel. These parables remain, even in a predominantly secular society, the archetypes for forgiveness, inclusion, and good neighborliness.

On the 8th Sunday after Pentecost much will be written and even more preached about the meaning of the parable of The Good Samaritan. The historical reasons for the animosity between Jews and Samaritans will be explored. It’s a parable that plays with the tensions of tribal community stereotypes of otherness.

My visit to the National Building Museum shows the sorry truth that even with the best intentions in the world it is difficult to embrace racial and cultural differences. The parable of The Good Samaritan reminds us that it’s not the radically different cultures on the other side of the world that it’s hardest to tolerate, but the nearby neighbor whose skin color, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own. 

The New Yorker Magazine shows that skin color or race is not really the issue so much as the socio-economics of class and how these play out in images and experiences. The parable of the Good Samaritan confronts the hearer with our assumptions rooted in tribal community stereotypes of otherness.

As if we needed any reminding, we have just lived through another dreadful week when deadly police violence against black men has now triggered a backlash of racially motivated violence targeting otherwise innocent, white police officers. I am in agreement when the President who speaking from the Nato Summit noted:

What I can say is that all of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings because these are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.

Few now fail to recognize the criminal justice system and especially its law and order enforcement agencies are where our national failure to come to terms with the wound of racism upon our collective consciousness becomes most sharply focused. Race is not only a historical and culturally unresolved issue. It represents a key indicator of current economic inequality. Race acts as a lightening rod for societal anxiety, injustice, and oppression.

Personal-interpersonal assumptions

The core question in the parable fo the Good Samaritan concerns who is my neighbor? Christians in many churches throughout the land will be exhorted to follow the example of the Good Samaritan as if it’s a morality parable about being good rather than addressing the thorny issue of our responsibilities to our neighbor. Because in a society where the increasingly violent forces of polarization leave none of us unscathed, we want to sharply restrict the range of this question.

Today we seem to be just as guilty as those to whom 200 years ago John Wesley issued a warning against the danger of:

contracting our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race to but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own that our love towards them is but self-love reflected.

So much of the fear that prevents us reaching out across the spaces that divide us is because it’s safer to confine our love to those like us; a kind of self-referencing love masquerading as love of another.

Limiting the concept of who constitutes our neighbor while convincing ourselves that we are good, decent people may be understandable, but the Christian life is not about being good. Being good is simply self-referencing not God referencing. I know this may seem to many to be a fine distinction but it is one of crucial importance.  In a world where secular humanitarian impulses are showing signs of chronic fatigue, the Christian witness needs to be more deeply rooted than in our own notions of being good, being decent.

The only way I can overcome my fear of the other is to be compelled by my desire to love God and to open myself to encounter my gratitude to God expressed in a generosity of spirit towards another.

Two ways of reading

It seems to me there are two ways to read the parable of The Good Samaritan. We can take a traditional reading and see the parable as an exhortation to copy the behavior of the Good Samaritan.This is to treat it as a morality play about personal goodness. But this leaves open the question for me of – do I possess that amount of good will, that level of altruistic motivation, that amount of personal generosity towards others? The answer is that when I measure my motivations and actions against this standard of behavior, I fall far short. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I think I can avoid becoming involved.

An alternative reading is to see this as a parable of God’s own nature. My actions towards others are rooted not in my own ability or willingness to be good, but in the recognition that the God whom I desire to love, is that good! My actions towards others emerge from my gratitude for the generosity God shows towards me because there but for the grace of God, go I.

We do not love others from our own easily exhaustible reservoir of self-love. We can only love others when we first recognize that it is God’s love for us, and our experience of God’s inexhaustible reservoir of love that inevitably compels us into a concerned involvement with and for one to another.

Let us renounce that bigotry and party zeal which would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race to but a small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind let us always remember that kindred between man and man, and cultivate that happy instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly bound us to each other. John Wesley



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