Who is My Neighbor?

July 17, 2013 

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus:

To say that I was surprised by the decisions of the jury in Sanford, Florida in the trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin is an understatement. I offer this because as one who by trade traffics a fair amount in hyperbole, I don’t do understatement nearly as well. To be sure I had no predictions about the outcome of the trial. Maybe that is why I was and continue to be so surprised. In fact I am so surprised that even at this writing I can’t decide if outrage or numbness is the best way to describe how I feel. Maybe I have too many existential lenses through which I view the continuing tragedy that started on February 26, 2012. In our heart of hearts, given our narrative about 'the other' in this nation and culture, the roots of this specific historical tragedy are long, deep and tangled.

We cannot literally change history, but we can learn from it, and as people of faith we dare to believe that history can even be redeemed. What we can influence the most is the present and the future by the choices we make today. So, in this hour when every media platform is bombarding us with coverage of the post-verdict response, how do we engage the Gospel and how does it engage us? I have often heard that Karl Barth, the great 20th century Protestant theologian, once said that Christians should “read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” In fact it is hard to pin down a definitive speech, sermon, book, etc. where Barth said exactly this. But he apparently said enough things close to it that it stuck in some hearts and minds and has been instructive for many in wedding faith and life. An article at the online site of Princeton Theological Seminary points to a May 31, 1963 Time Magazine article which notes, "[Barth] recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians 'to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.'"

So it was not lost on me that the Gospel reading for the Sunday after the Zimmerman jury issued its verdict was Luke 10:25-37. I tweeted that day “could the Gospel reading for today be more timely?” I think not. (You might want to hit pause and read the text now.) This passage of scripture has tirelessly been referred to as the "Parable of the Good Samaritan." (There are of course many who think it is misnamed. But we will save that for another writing.) Among the things that strike me in this passage is the number of questions that are raised in this short exchange between Jesus and a seeker:

  • What must I do to gain eternal life?
  • What is written in the law?
  • How do you interpret it?
  • And who is my neighbor?
  • What do you think?
  • Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?

I’ve gone to the effort of spelling out the questions of the text because I believe that these are questions which should engage us all of the time, not just in this sensitive and fragile moment. In truth we are answering these questions personally and corporately each day with our lives and ministries, whether we intend to or not. I spell them out because my life tends to affirm a better answer when I really hear the question(s).

So how do we act to shape the future? How will we redeem history? I only ask because I believe we can. In that spirit, I offer a few suggestions applicable to individuals and congregations:

  1. Pray for the two families and the community most poignantly affected by the   Martin - Zimmerman tragedy.
  2. Study Luke 10:25-37 with others and find yourself in the story.
  3. “Seek peace and pursue it” in every venue and relationship.
  4. Engage with your neighbors and your neighborhood. If you don’t know them you may not really be in ministry.
  5. Risk starting a conversation about race and culture. What we don’t know and are too afraid to ask is killing us.
  6. Take a step that closes the generational (mis)understanding gap. Our perceptions and stereotypes are an obstacle to building beloved community.

As always I am,

Your servant in the Gospel.

+Gregory Vaughn Palmer
Resident Bishop, Ohio West  Area