Black Lives Matter: A Modern Day Good Samaritan Parable

Let us pray: God, people are hurting. Communities are hurting. This country is hurting. The world is hurting. You are the God who offers healing to the sick, gives sight to the blind, shines light in the darkness. May we feel your presence with us this day, and may we comfort the afflicted. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable unto you. You are our rock, our redeemer, the salvation of the world. Amen.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan. You’ve all heard it. It’s the story of a Jewish man who was walking along the road of Jericho and was attacked by robbers. The robbers beat him, stole his possessions, and left him for dead. Lying on the side of the road, bleeding, taking in his last breaths, a priest walked by, and I’m sure he thought, “Oh, he’ll help me!” But when the priest saw him, he started walking on the other side of the street. Then a Levite, a person in charge of the Temple, came strolling by, and the beaten man maybe lifted his head up, but the Levite walked by when he saw him. Eventually, when his end was near, a Samaritan came walking up. A Samaritan, who thought of himself as Jewish but who the “real” Jews considered profane and unclean, unfit to claim their faith, but a Samaritan walks up and saves this man. We’ve heard this story before, but maybe today we can hear it anew.

It happened on the Jericho Road. It always happens on the Jericho Road. The Jericho Road is the seventeen-mile road that connects Jerusalem to Jericho. This road drops thirty-six hundred feet in those seventeen miles. It is a steep, winding, descending, remote road that for centuries has been ruled by robbers. It’s an incredibly dangerous place to travel, but for some people, it’s their only option. Traversing Jericho was part of their routine. So the traveler in the parable must have lived with the anxiety, the fear of traveling on the road, but had no choice. Why else would he be there?

Did you notice that other people were able to safely walk on the road though? The priest was able to walk it, and nothing happened to him. The Levite was granted safe passage. Heck, even the Samaritan made it through. But for some reason, certain people were attacked, and others weren’t. You have to ask yourself, “Where’s the Jericho Transit Authority! Why aren’t they monitoring the situation?” Well, in a sense, the robbers were the Jericho Transit Authority. The robbers decided who could travel, who couldn’t. Who lived, and who died.

And what strikes me is that there’s no justice for the man beaten to the brink of death in Jesus’s story. These robbers were like gods, able to act with immunity. There was nothing anyone could do to stop them. The robbers knew that they wouldn’t get in trouble, that they were safe.

While the robbers were safe to beat and destroy, the people who traveled the road to Jericho knew that they were in danger to be hurt or killed. They’re alone on the road, knowing that no one would be able to tell their story. No one would tell this Jewish man’s story, until the stranger comes along, and Jesus lifts up the person who helps the one whom is continuously beaten and bruised, left for dead.

It was August 9th, 2014. It was one of those hot midwestern summer days in Ferguson, Missouri. Maybe it felt a lot like the Jericho Road. But it was this fateful day that sparked the Black Lives Matters movement. What exactly transpired that day is unclear, but we do know that Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson police department blocked Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American, with his police car. Officer Wilson thought that Michael matched the description of a man who had robbed a convenience store for a few packs of cigarillos. We don’t know what happened exactly, but on August 9th, 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Wilson.

What followed was nation wide protests, largely by the African-American community. The incident, which will forever be known simply as Ferguson, brought to the national spotlight the racial tensions between the African-American community in America and our nations law enforcement.

I remember that night. I remember lying awake until 3 in the morning. Addison and I were living in our apartment in Fenway, and I was glued to my phone as I laid in bed and watched the protests through various livestreams. I supported the protests then, but I couldn’t fathom what would drive the protestors to take to the streets, to stand up to police in tactical gear and in military grade vehicles. I wanted to try and search for whatever information I could to figure out how we arrived at this moment.

Do you remember the first time you were aware of police misconduct or brutality? Maybe you’ve experienced it. Perhaps it was the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1992 LA riot due to the acquittal of the officers. But that wasn’t the beginning of the animosity between Black Americans and the police. The story starts off long ago in the early 18th century before we were even a nation. In 1704, the colony of Carolina developed the nation’s first slave patrol. Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves. Many southern police departments actually began as slave patrols.

We don’t have time to go through a thorough historical account of how we reached this point, but instead I’m going to tell you where we are. Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people; 102 of 464 Black Americans killed so far this year were not carrying weapons. 32% of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, compared to 15% of white people killed. African Americans are significantly more likely to be profiled, arrested, and incarcerated in the US than white suspects who commit similar offenses and have equal or even longer criminal records. White Americans are more likely than black Americans to have used most kinds of illegal drugs, including cocaine, marijuana and LSD, yet Black Americans are far more likely to go to prison for drug offenses than someone who looks like me.

Jamie Fellner, author of the Human Rights Watch report, offered an explanation for this discrepancy: “Racism isn’t just that the judge going, ‘Oh, you’re a black man, I’m going to give you a longer sentence ,’” she said. “The police go into low-income minority neighborhoods and that’s where they make most of their drug arrests. If they arrest you, now you have a ‘prior,’ so if you plead or get arrested again, you’re going to have an even longer sentence. There’s a kind of cumulative effect.”

What’s happening to Black Americans strikes me as being incredibly similar to what happens in the story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, Jesus chose the road to Jericho because it was so routine for certain people to travel through the area and be assaulted.

Black Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all of these risks. Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers re not black. However, having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting. Living in a high-poverty neighborhood increases risk of violent-crime involvement, and in the poorest neighborhoods of the country, four out of five residents are black or Hispanic.

A survey conducted by the Associated Press found that half of black respondents, including 6 in 10 black men, said they personally had been treated unfairly by police because of their race, compared to only 3 percent of white people. When you’ve had these traumatic experiences with law enforcement, it’s almost impossible to get past it.

Sticking with the parable of the Good Samaritan, we know that the priest and Levite were able to walk the road to Jericho safely. Jesse Williams, an actor on Grey’s Anatomy and activist, famously said a few weeks ago that we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm, and not kill white people everyday. And there’s very rarely accountability when Black Americans are killed by police officers.

There’s a popular saying that a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests this is true: according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.

Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. Grand juries frequently decline to indict law-enforcement officials. A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings.

Some of y’all might have heard though about the Ferguson effect, that because of protests crime is going up, when in reality, the nationwide trend in violent crime continues to point downward, as it has for the last 25 years. There are year-to-year variations, and differences between cities, but there is no nationwide crime epidemic. Yes there have been isolated incidents of looting and buildings set on fire, but I ask you, which are you more upset about: a convenience store burning down or the death of a child of God that preceded it?

This environment has created a culture that leaves many in the African-American community feeling isolated and alone. But what is amazing to me is the resilience we are seeing. By and large, the response has been peaceful. This past week in Atlanta, more than 10,000 people took to the streets in response to the videos of police officers shooting and killing Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis.  By Saturday morning, there were only two arrests reported. A spokesperson for Atlanta Police said they didn’t make a single arrest while Georgia State Patrol made only two.

But then Dallas happened, where five officers were shot and lost their lives. Officer Brent Thompson, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Michael Smith, And Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens were killed when a lone gun man showed up after the Dallas protests and opened fire. These deaths have been felt across the country. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile want their deaths to be felt too.

We can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country and still be troubled by cases of police overreach; those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. We can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards. But instead, if you’re pro-black lives matter, you’re assumed to be anti-police, and if you’re pro-police, then surely you are racist. It seems that it’s either pro-cop and anti-black or pro-black and anti-cop, when in reality you can be pro-cop and pro-black, which is what we all should be.

Christopher Hayes, a reporter for MSNBC, had this to say Friday: “A little less than a month ago I was in Orlando for the Pulse nightclub shooting. It was one of the most awful things I’ve ever covered. But there was something also truly inspiring and hopeful in the aftermath: people refusing to turn on each other. Solidarity. We have that in us. We do. I’ve seen it.”

And we were seeing it Thursday night. The Black Lives Matter Protest that was going on in Dallas was embraced by the Dallas PD. There were pictures on social media of officers and protestors sitting around and talking, taking pictures of each other, showing that when we hear the pain of others experiences, we can make a better world. When the Samaritan, whoever the Samaritan might be, steps down to look his other in the eye, healing can occur. But after the protest was when the firing started from a lone gunman not associated with the protest. According to the Dallas PD, officers shuttled protestors to safety during the attack and protestors helped police capture the shooter.

A writer for the Atlantic, wrote, “We deserve peace. A society that is less violent, more equal, more just, and more tolerant. That means questioning violence at every turn.” To quote Martin Luther King Jr., “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

I don’t want black men fearful when they encounter police. I don’t want police officers shot. I want to go to the movies without fear. Children should not die in school buildings and a place of worship should be sacred safe space.

Education, gun violence, black lives matter, gang violence, drug abuse, and poverty all intersect. The intersectionality of our problems are intertwined. Until we begin to realize the depths and magnitude of the issues that face us, very little progress will be made.

But the good news is that progress can be made. Prior to the shootings in Dallas last night, we saw examples of protestors and police beginning to listen and understand each other. It is VITAL that this continues. Only through dialogue can we find a way forward.

I’m preaching about this because Sunday cannot disconnect from what happened Saturday or what will happen Monday. So let today be a day where we pray for the Dallas PD, working to answer questions from the shooting which brought down so many of their own. Let today be a day where we pray for the families mourning this day, these weeks, these months, these years. Let today be a day we remember the lives lost and yet unnamed, but also let us name those lost. Let today be a day we remember Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardener, and the many many many more, unknown to us but known by those who love and miss them. Let today be a day where we remember Officer Brent Thompson, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Michael Smith, And Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, and all those injured.

Jesus is telling us that the grace which he shows within us eventually makes demands outside of us, expanding our capacity for love and compassion, justice and peace. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us to heal the sickness in our country, helps inspire us to create a land where we bind up the broken. God desires for us to destroy systems of racism and oppression, Jesus cries out to us to dismantle retributive ways that only lead to more heartache and loss when he is strung up on the cross and cries out, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.” We must bridge the divides in our country. God help us to see the humanity in each other, that we are all your children.

Amen.

 

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