Who is my neighbor?

Thanks to the internet, we have a 24 hour news cycle and can instantly react to anything and disseminate our reactions instantly across a wide array of platforms. This post is not so timely.

Of course, I will attempt to be timely with this blog going forward, but since I’ve just launched it I want to speak to recent evils we’ve witnessed in America, despite the month-plus delay.

Black Lives Matter.

I’m just another white guy getting on board with this, so please don’t let this be the only thing you read. I mentioned Dr. Eric Mason’s book Woke Church in my first post, and I’ve also been reading Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait on the Civil Rights Movement, as well as Russ Whitfield and Irwin Ince’s blogs in response to George Floyd’s murder; watched the Netflix documentary 13th, Dave Chappelle’s 8:46, NPR’s video of Frederick Douglass’ grandchildren reading and talking about his “Fourth of July” Speech; and listened to this episode of Kris Cooper’s (RUF at North Carolina Central University) “The Missing Generation” podcast, my former seminary classmate Claude Ball’s “Culture Shock” podcast, and this recent episode of “This American Life” which ends with Kimberly Jones’ absolutely damning appraisal of the systemic racism and injustice plaguing America’s entire history.

Any one of those resources is more helpful than what I—a white man—will add to the discussion here, but each of those, and probably others have informed what follows.

Each of those has been helpful in better understanding the experience and suffering of our African American brothers and sisters recently, and what it could and should look like as Jesus’ Church to repent, be reconciled, and fulfill the greatest commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:38-39).

I repent of my ignorance and failure to know the sufferings of my neighbors. My eyes are opened, but seeing clearly is not enough. Writing a blog isn’t enough either.

The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd who are the latest additions to a tragically long list of black people killed by police are abominable crimes against humanity. May God bring justice to bear on the guilty for the sake of Jesus and these families.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan keeps coming up in my mind. It’s my favorite parable, and one I’ve had the pleasure to preach several times.

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37, English Standard Version

Here Jesus is confronted by an expert in religious law—an expert who is trying to test Jesus in a game of legal “Gotcha”—who wants Jesus to clarify who counts as a neighbor. That is, who are we obligated to love?

Among the problems of this line of questioning and thinking is the narrowing of God’s law, which as Jesus himself said, “37You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Never mind the fact the lawyer just blows past “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. “Yeah, yeah, but who is my neighbor?” If we cannot love God completely, as the law demands how can we hope to love our neighbors to the level the law demands?

Spoiler alert: we cannot.

But the lawyer, this expert in religious law believes himself to be completely able. He just needs clarity on whom he is to direct his efforts.

So Jesus shows him. It’s not the people like you. It’s not even the people you’d expect or aspire to be (looking at you Priest and Levite). It’s the “half dead” naked guy on the side of the road as you travel between cities. Life and loving our neighbors might be so much easier if not for all these dead people on the side of the road.

Indeed scripture says that we’re not just “half dead” as it says of the man who fell among robbers, but that we are totally dead, every one of us in our sins and trespasses.

But the one who proves to be a neighbor isn’t the “half dead” man. The one who proves to be the neighbor, in the words of the lawyer is “The one who showed mercy.” That one was the hated outsider. The despised race. The man from Samaria.

History tells us the Jews despised the Samaritans, and vice versa. It’s not too far a leap to equate their relationship with that between black and white people in the United States. I’m painting with broad strokes here, I know not all black and white people are antagonistic toward one another, but the events of the last 60 days especially, in addition to the ~400 years of this country’s existence show us we are far from harmonious.

It’s become clear that white people, like the lawyer in the Good Samaritan have narrowed our definition of neighbor either implicitly or explicitly. I can only speak for myself, but I’m ashamed that before this summer I did not know the suffering of my black and brown brothers and sisters today. Presently. My failure to know, to change, to act has surely perpetuated at worst, or made me complicit at best with the systemic racism and injustice still present in this country.

Thinking about this back in early June I recalled conversations with fellow RUF International Campus Ministers who talked about asking churches whether they are an American church or a kingdom embassy. I’ve not been so bold to ask this question, but it’s stuck with me since hearing it in January. If we can ask this of our churches, I suspect we can ask it of individual Christians as well.

Am I, are we “American” Christians, or else Republican, Democrat, White, Black or am I, are we Kingdom Christians first and foremost?

Paul, in Ephesians writes the church and the Gentiles therein—the non-Israelites—”So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” (Ephesians 2:19, ESV). Our passport has changed from a US (or wherever you’re reading from) passport to a Kingdom passport.

Further, Jesus himself told the crowds following him, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26). If following Jesus means prioritizing him even over our own flesh and blood—those with whom we are biologically closest if not emotionally and relationally—surely we must also put him over our preferences, our affiliations, our hobbies, and whatever else we might be tempted to elevate over Jesus.

If these things are true, we (and I put myself in the front of this) must repent of placing our identity in anything other than Christ and his kingdom. If we can’t do that, then we must ask whether our identity, faith, and hope truly is in Christ.

Sadly even the racial tension of America has been politicized and weaponized against the “other.” It’s become crystal clear that white people, Christian and non-Christian have failed to love our neighbors. This is a shameful witness of Christ and his kingdom to non-Christians. I have failed. The Church has failed, and I can’t apologize enough for how, and how often I’ve failed in this area.

But there’s good news.

That good news is THE good news. My failures, the Church’s failures are not the failures of Jesus or the God of the Bible. As Dr. Eric Mason pointed out in the final chapter of his book Woke Church that Revelation 7:9-10 shows us where the Church of Jesus is headed:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Every Nation. All Tribes and peoples and languages. United in praising God and Jesus.

Dr. Mason reminds his readers this is where we’re headed, so there’s no reason to lose hope. This is the hope we have, and that God will bring to fruition. We have this hope because Jesus, the hated outsider came to love us and make us right with God.

If Jesus can make us right with God, let us (especially Christians!) be right and work to be right with each other.

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