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9th August 2020

Discovering a Neighbour

Passage: Luke 10; 25-37


Let me tell you a story. When I lived in Banstead, the local council supplied us with wheelie bins for our rubbish. Superior wheelie bins with the area crest in gold on the side… One day I put my bin out to be emptied and when I went to bring it in, it had gone. I phoned the council about getting a replacement and they told me that I had to report the loss to the police and get a crime number.
Tentatively I phoned the police, anxious that I could be accused of wasting their time, but no, they arranged for a telephone interview in the course of which I was asked if I thought the theft might have been racially motivated? I had no idea! But as Banstead was an almost exclusively white, middle-class area, I thought it unlikely. I was then asked if I needed counselling for the loss of my wheelie bin. I said that I thought not. Then, when it turned out that I was Minister of the church next door, I was asked if my congregation might need counselling to console them for the loss of their Minister’s wheelie bin. I could not believe this and probably, neither can you. But I got my new bin and it made a great story to tell.

It is only recently, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter campaign that I started to think again.
Suppose I lived in an area where I knew that the theft of my bin was racially motivated because I had already had my children’s bicycles stolen and my car tyres slashed because my skin was the wrong colour?
Suppose I and my congregation did need counselling because we feared that the theft of the bin would soon be followed by bricks through our windows and hate-filled slogans on our walls? The police do not ask questions about racially motivated crime for their own amusement (or for mine). They ask them because it really happens.

Highly publicised acts of racism create public horror. We hear about bricks through windows, petrol and lighted paper through letter boxes, knives and guns used because one race objects to sharing space with another. And we condemn this as unacceptable.

What I find more disturbing is the history of what I would call “civilised” racism: polite, non-violent and embedded in a supposedly civilised culture. Let me explain:
The film The Green Book, tells the true story of a pianist who happened to have black skin. He goes on a concert tour of the deep south in America, during the era of segregation. In one place he gives a concert in a private mansion, where he is welcomed warmly by the charming host. He is loudly applauded for his performance. But when he asks for the cloakroom, he is directed to the end of the garden. And his charming host cannot see any reason why the pianist should object. It is just “the way things are.”
In her novel “Frankie and Stankie,” Barbara Trapido draws on her experience of South Africa during Apartheid. As a nicely brought up white girl, she visits another nicely brought up girl and accidently treads (in her shoes) on the toes of the barefoot, black maid. Quickly she says sorry and her friend’s mother is horrified. A nice white girl never says sorry to a black servant.
And that now infamous statue of Edward Colston? Colston was acclaimed as a philanthropist, yet it never occurred to anyone at the time that money made through the Slave Trade was unacceptable.

When what looks like a civilised culture is accepting of standards such as these, then that whole culture is deeply flawed. How many steps then to Nazi Germany where Hitler’s party of well-mannered people honestly believed that they had the right to exterminate anyone who did not fit in with the plans of the Master Race.
The Black Lives Matter campaign is not just about open, violent, racist attacks but also about the cultures which help racism to grow.

So, to the story of the Good Samaritan. At first sight this is not so much about race as about religion. The wounded man was a Jew. In Jesus original story it was a Priest and a Levite (Levites were temple stewards) who passed him by, and they were also Jews. So, why did they not help him? Because Jewish culture and religion had strict rules on hygiene. If you touched someone who was bleeding, you became ritually impure and you had to go through a process of deep cleansing before you could mix with other people or enter a place of worship. We know all about this right now!
The rules made a lot of sense in a society where medicine was primitive and water sometimes scarce. A great many lives would have been saved because of these regulations and the fact that they were religious as well as social obligations meant that a deeply religious people would take them far more seriously.

The Jewish religion, remember, was inextricably linked with their national identity. They knew that their race had once been enslaved in Egypt and that God had rescued them, under the leadership of Moses. In order to survive a hazardous journey across the desert and entry into a new country where they would not be welcome, they had to hold tightly together. They needed their law to keep them close to God and bound to each other. Their history had gone on to include enemy invasions, political divisions, years of exile and now they were living under Roman occupation. We cannot be surprised that the hard core of faithful Jewish people was more determined than ever to keep their race pure. And rigorous observance of the law was a good way of maintaining that purity.

So, the actions of the Priest and the Levite were, in fact, about racism. And racism disguised as religion has caused far more people than just those two to leave suffering fellow human beings to die or even to justify killing them. Think about it…..

What is Jesus saying here? It is not just be “nice” to everyone. Life is far more complex than that. Studdert-Kennedy once commented that, whilst the Good Samaritan was an excellent example of human compassion, he did not own that road from Jerusalem to Jericho. If he had owned the road, it would have been his duty to keep it clear of thieves and muggers, not just go up and down with his donkey picking up wounded Jews.

We are talking hugely complex political, social, economic and religious systems needing to be changed if racism is truly to be eliminated. But we also know that even as anti-racist laws of our country become tighter, racial hatred at local levels gets worse. Rules alone are not enough.

I remember a friend of mine, when confronted with the argument that all races should simply remain in their own place and within their own territory (in other word go home!), answered quietly that she thought we were higher up the evolutionary chain than this…..
And the more I think about it, the more I see that most racial issues go back to the laws of the jungle. The struggle for territory, the solidarity of the herd, the fear of what might be the predator, the survival of the fittest, the lack of compassion for the weakest.
Such evils as slavery, colonisation, invasion, occupation, long-term hatred and prejudice, discrimination, violence can all be traced back to our most basic “animal instincts.”
And the question is- do we really wish to remain as animals? Is this as good as we can ever hope to be? Or is there a better way?

Jesus came in the hopes of restoring us to the image of God. In the story of the Good Samaritan he is telling us that yes, there is a better way. We do not have to become the victims of a culture which, whilst looking civilised, is in fact reducing us to the laws of the jungle. We are better than that.

When Jesus finishes the story, he tells his listeners to go and do the same. He had hope, then? He believed that we were all capable of demonstrating love and compassion even for people whom our culture encouraged us to dismiss as worthless? And he believed that, as individual human beings found themselves restored to the image of God, so they could create a world which was the kingdom of God, a world in which every life- black, white, yellow or brown mattered; a world in which political, economic social, and religious systems would never again believe that it was right for human lives to be lost in the interests of their particular ideology.

You have to say that Jesus put “his money where his mouth was” because he was prepared to sacrifice his own life to the forces of human evil and injustice rather than demand that the perpetrators of that evil should be sacrificed. His compassion cost him his life.
Yet we are told that he came back from death; that even the vast power of evil could not destroy him. And he came back to give his followers that Holy Spirit; that image of God which had been in him.
The early Christian church, despite some initial struggles, became a rare example of a truly multi-cultural community with a high reputation for caring for the weakest members of society. St Paul wrote down, “There is no longer any Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. We are all one in Christ.” And believe me, that would have sounded a whole lot more radical then, even than it does now.

So, go out with your heads held high, because in Jesus Christ, we are better than the laws of the jungle. We can move forward from being motivated by purely animal instincts. We can be agents of transformation in our homes, our work, our neighbourhood, our nation. Who knows, maybe this week God will present some of us with a wounded victim whom we can stop and pick up. Or maybe God will show us a dangerous road somewhere that needs cleaning up so that people can travel through life without fear. Maybe your story will be told to inspire those who want a better world?
Jesus thought we were worth it. Alleluia. We go to follow him. Amen.