On Sunday, July 10, women were the primary worship leaders at First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue, Winston-Salem, N.C.’s, oldest African-American Baptist congregation. Five females led responsive readings, read scripture, made announcements and offered prayers in a congregation weighed down by sadness, trying to come to spiritual and communal terms with a week that witnessed (literally, on social media) the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La.; Philando Castile in Minneapolis; and Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorene Ahrens and Michael Smith in Dallas. As worship began, pain was palpable.
As worshipers gathered “at the altar,” the woman who led the congregational prayer time began by invoking the Spirit’s presence upon grieving families. Then, her voice breaking, she asked God to “protect us” every day when “we go to the store, to work, and when we drive down the street.” She prayed for renewed strength in both church and nation, often pausing to hold back tears, and by the final “Amen,” her prayer had deepened the congregation’s sense of communion with God and one another. Many wept; all were touched. She “knew how to get hold of God,” as the old preachers said it, and we were oh so grateful.
Moments later, the youth choir rose to sing “Ride On, King Jesus, ride on; no man can a-hinder thee,” a gender specificity that seemed sadly appropriate since the shooters in all three locales were male. “No man can a-hinder thee.” Sometimes singing about hope when things seem hopeless is the most the church can do until it finds its way to action.
Responsibility for the day’s sermon fell to — fell on — me. Our church is in an “interim situation,” and I’m sharing a bit of the preaching with our associate pastor. We preach from the lectionary, so I was already deep into the Good Samaritan text (Luke 10) when the “week from hell,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow called it, descended on us. Those horrific events drove me back to the text, first on Monday (Louisiana), then Wednesday (Minnesota), then early Saturday morning (Texas), revising the sermon while fretting that last-minute, event-responding homilies may over-speak or under-think complex realities, trivializing truly prophetic moments. Yet the collective trauma of social upheaval and violent death may compel us to speak about things we’d never find the strength to say in safer, calmer times. To remain silent might force the very stones to cry out.
So I went back to the text, or rather the text came back to me with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” That inquiry produced one of Jesus’ best known parables, worked and overworked by preachers across the centuries. My reflections were aided and abetted by Molly Marshall’s recent Baptist News Global essay on the Luke 10 text, with insights into the theological dynamics of the story. Molly recalls preaching from the Good Samaritan text in a Kentucky church where a deacon asked: “And who is the Samaritan in your sermon?”
Jesus’ parable, the deacon’s question and the violence of that hellish week convinced me that we’ve got to stop Samaritanizing people! When Jesus chose a Samaritan as the hero of this story he carried listeners into the religio-cultural divisions of his own not-so-holy land. As Jesus tells it, the “Samaritan dog” (a standard first-century label) becomes the one kingdom-of-God person for miles around.
Twenty-one centuries later, when we Samaritanize others (I made that word up) we imply that they are fatally flawed by identities like their race or religion, their ethnicity or their uniforms, and thus are unworthy of care, understanding or perhaps even life itself. Words can initiate the process but guns often finish it. Samaritans are those people: “The blacks, the Mexicans, the gays, the retards, the white trash, the welfare queens, the cops, the protesters. And when all that fails, they’re simply the losers.
What we mean, however, is that they are other, not like us. Hence they are dangerous; keep your distance. Injustice does exist, differences are real, but not as an excuse for murder. So let’s stop Samaritanizing each other not only because it’s wrong, or foreign to the Jesus Story, but, if nothing else, because we’re all in danger of being Samaritanized by somebody.
While teaching undergraduate Religion 101 at Samford University at the height of the AIDS crisis, I required students to attend three religious traditions different from their own. Some chose to visit the infamously “liberal” Baptist Church of the Covenant in downtown Birmingham, where on most Sundays they found people signing up as caregivers for AIDS patients, cooking their meals, transporting them to clinics and pharmacies, and giving them teddy bears as signs of love. During those years, people with HIV/AIDS were often denounced, often by Christians, as “deserving” the disease because of their identity and behavior. Yet after visiting that Birmingham congregation, student after student wrote, “That church doesn’t condemn AIDS patients, they just help them.” Apparently, Baptist Church of the Covenant stopped Samaritanizing folks long ago.
If the gospel can’t do that in and through the rest of us, even amid racism and violence, then the words “no [one] can a-hinder thee” don’t mean much at all. So “ride on, King Jesus, ride on.” We won’t a-hinder thee no more.