Two Sundays ago, churchgoers heard in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus’ answer to a question put to him by “a lawyer,” namely: “Who is my neighbor?” The tragic shootings of two black men by police raised for our nation yet again the twin questions of Who is my neighbor? and How I am to love him? Alton Sterling was shot in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile outside of St. Paul. The horrific events in my city of Dallas arrived soon after.
For the record, I believe there are at least four sins committed by our nation that cry to heaven for vengeance:
- the genocide of American Indians;
- state-sanctioned abortion;
- the defrauding of laborers of their wages (according to the Social Security Administration, illegal immigrants and their employers have contributed more than $100 billion of their wages to Social Security in the past decade and, because they are here illegally, they will receive little to none of that money);
- and slavery.
Our nation has sowed the wind, and I am afraid that we will reap the whirlwind. When it comes to the legacy of slavery, we are beginning to see it more and more. And if you don’t believe in corporate sin or corporate guilt, you haven’t read the Bible.
I don’t have any political answers. And frankly, I don’t think there are any answers for our nation anymore. We have denied ourselves access, politically and corporately, to the resources that animated the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The heroes of that time proclaimed from the rooftops that their work was underwritten by the imperatives of their faith in Jesus Christ. I have in mind men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. The latter was a white, Anglo-Catholic seminarian from the Church of the Advent in Boston who was shot to death in Alabama in 1963 when he threw himself between a shotgun-wielding white construction worker and a 17-year-old black girl. Martin Luther King called this “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”
But our misguided rulers are deliberately and systematically squeezing Christian faith out of our nation’s public square, because the idea that our authentic identity must be found wholly in the election of God’s only Son strikes at the very foundation of the vision of the neoliberal market state, which understands itself entirely in terms of guaranteeing and celebrating individualist, consumerist autonomy. We are now supposed to choose our identities as freely and as whimsically as we choose which brand of toothpaste we buy. We are told that our freedom to choose trumps even the structure of our chromosomes. But Christian faith stands in the way of that so-called freedom. The signs of the times, in this respect, are there for all to see. The hour is late.
W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” (1919) is a word in season, an eerie and prophetic voice for this moment of history. The poem has been floating through my mind in connection with our cultural moment, ever more and more:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It is cold comfort to recognize yourself among “the best” simply because you “lack all conviction.” How is it that this poem so trenchantly foreshadows, in 1919, the political situation of the West almost a hundred years later?
I am not convinced that René Girard and Walker Percy were wrong when they suggested that the Apocalypse began at the Battle of Verdun (see, respectively, Battling to the End [MSU Press, 2010] and Love in the Ruins [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971]). The words of a brave and innocent four-year-old-girl, trying to comfort her distraught mother, have been echoing through my head. If you watched the video of the aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting (which I do not necessarily recommend), you will know what I am talking about. It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
So, I fear, we contemporary Americans are rudderless when it comes to figuring out who our neighbors are and how to love them.
But we Christians aren’t. We should know, because our Master has told us, and commanded us to live it out. Nor can we forget the exegetical consensus of the Church Fathers, that Jesus is himself the one figured by the character of the Good Samaritan. We are the ones lying in the ditch, battered and helpless. Jesus is the stranger who comes near in mercy, bathes our wounds with the sacraments of his healing and reconciliation, the one who lodges us safe in the bosom of our holy mother, the Church, until he comes again.
My congregation is a small one. But one of the things I cherish most about it is its racial diversity. Authentic integration doesn’t happen naturally: take a look at a typical school cafeteria, or at the neighborhood demographics of any American city. Authentic integration is supernatural. We are one people of God, gathered like grains of wheat from the disparate hillsides of class and ethnicity, gathered in peace around one altar, worshiping one Lord. Saint Paul said to the church in Corinth: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).
Like many people, I feel a sense of foreboding about what is coming on our nation and our world (cf. Luke 21:26). But the peace of Jesus is rooted in my heart, and that peace transcends all foreboding and all understanding.
With Saint Paul (Col. 1:9-14), I pray that we may be strengthened with all power, according to the glorious might of God, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has already delivered us from the dominion of this world’s gathering darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness — even from the sins of our own nation that cry to heaven for vengeance.
Photo credit: L.M. Otero.