It was a stormy night in Memphis, forty-eight years ago, much like some of the nights we had this past week with heavy rains and powerful thunderstorms. It was the night of April 3, 1968, the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers, and many wondered what a Nobel Peace Prize winner had to do with garbagemen – didn’t he have more important things to do? His closest aides reminded him that Memphis was not a strategic city, and sanitation workers would not attract the kind of broad sympathy on the national evening news the children of Birmingham or the victims of police brutality in Selma had created. What was King doing in Memphis?
There’s a back story. Local residents had objected to the sanitation workers’ practice of eating lunch outside the trucks—“picnicking” they called it. “Not in our neighborhood,” they said. And so the workers were instructed to eat in the truck, even though the cab of a truck did not accommodate a crew of four. One rainy afternoon, two of the workers crawled into the compactor on the back end of the truck to eat their sandwiches. Something was wrong with the wiring, the system engaged, and the two workers were crushed—compacted, like garbage. It’s no wonder that later, when their colleagues went on strike to demand better pay and better working conditions, many of them wore signs that read, “I am a man.”
That stormy night Dr. King asked the question, “Why Memphis?” and he answered it by telling the story of a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves and was beaten, stripped, thrown in a ditch and left for dead. The man in the ditch, said King, is the sanitation worker. He tried to imagine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop to help. Perhaps they had more important things to do. Perhaps they were already late for a meeting of the Jericho Improvement Association. Perhaps they were afraid; you stop on a road like that and you may well be the next victim. The whole thing could be a trap, who knows. Who knows what went through their minds when they saw the man in the ditch and passed him by on the other side. Even honorable people, King said in his speech, ask, “What will happen to me if I stop?” But the real question, according to King, is not, “What will happen to me if I do stop?” but, “What will happen to them if I don’t?” Memphis was not a detour for Dr. King; it was a demand of neighborly love that he be there. The next morning, King was shot and killed just outside his motel room. The Jericho road is a dangerous place.
Jesus told the story in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” asked by an expert in the law. The lawyer wanted to know who qualified as neighbor, how he could differentiate between neighbor and non-neighbor. Jesus told the story and he changed the question: Which of the three who came by the scene was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?
The one who showed him mercy, the lawyer responded. The one who was moved with compassion, who went to the man and bandaged his wounds, who then brought him to an inn and took care of him, and the next day paid the innkeeper to take care of the man and promised to repay him whatever more he spent upon his return. The one who showed him mercy, the lawyer responded. Some commentators say, he couldn’t bring himself to say the word Samaritan, so deep was the enmity between Jews and Samaritans. I’m not so sure; perhaps the lawyer had listened to Jesus’ story more carefully than we can imagine; perhaps he had learned to avoid labeling people with a quick reference to their ethnic background, their religious or political affiliation, or their socio-economic status.
Who was a neighbor to the man in the ditch? The one who showed him mercy. When love and mercy determine our actions, the labels begin to come off. In the story, the only character without a label is the man who was beaten, stripped, and robbed. No clothes to tell the passerby if he is rich or poor. Left for dead, he couldn’t speak and so there is no accent to betray if he’s a local or a foreigner. All there is to see for the passerby is a human being’s naked need. The man who stopped to help was still a man from Samaria, but in the lawyer’s mind, perhaps it was no longer the quick label that described the man, but his merciful actions.
Henri Nouwen wrote in the late 90’s,
We become neighbors when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, (…). As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look into one another’s eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. (…) Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.
When I heard the news that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had been shot and killed by police, I was angry, I was sad. “Not again,” I said to myself, “not again.” I felt my soul draining through the bottom of my feet into the ground and I felt a deep helplessness.
There are powers at work among us that won’t surrender to our good intentions. We have collectively created systems of inequality and exclusion over generations, systems that we all participate in daily, whether we want to or not, systems whose power over us seems so much greater than our power over them. Michelle Alexander wrote on Facebook, “This nation was founded on the idea that some lives don't matter. Freedom and justice for some, not all. That’s the foundation. Yes, progress has been made in some respects, but it hasn’t come easy. There’s an unfinished revolution waiting to be won.” The injustice, the violent exploitation and abuse of slavery and Jim Crow are not past, they are painfully present. Crossing the road, as Nouwen suggested, sounds simple enough, too simple perhaps; learning to see each other’s reality through each other’s experiences and stories rather than solely through our respective lenses takes a long walk, a long walk.
A national survey in 2015 by the Public Religion Research Institute showed a wide chasm separating black and white Americans’ attitudes toward the police. 64 percent of blacks vs. only 17 percent of whites identified police mistreatment as a major problem in their community. Similarly, 48 percent of blacks had a great deal or some confidence in the police, compared to 83 percent of whites who reported being confident in the law enforcement. 65 percent of whites said recent killings of African American men by police were isolated incidents, while only 15 percent of black Americans shared the same view. 81 percent of black Americans said recent police killings of African American men were part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans. Again, those are last year’s numbers, and I don’t expect much has changed for the better; it’s gonna be a long walk.
I was very comfortable looking at the scene in Jesus’ story from the perspective of the road, a very privileged perspective, as it turns out. It’s a privilege to see things through the eyes of the three men who travel the Jericho road with the freedom to choose if and when they cross it, whether they cross it to put greater distance between themselves and the man in the ditch or to come closer for mercy’s sake, close enough to look into his eyes and touch his bruised body with caring hands. Like I said, I was very comfortable looking at the scene in Jesus’ story from the perspective of one walking down the Jericho road, and then I heard the news Friday morning that eleven police officers had been shot in Dallas and five of them killed by sniper fire the night before.
I just sat there, I was terrified.
What is happening?
Is this what we’ve become?
Are we gonna take up arms and kill each other in helpless rage or calculated terror?
Fear crept in and numbness; it got cold.
What a mess we have made of the world.
We’re not on the road, we’re in the ditch.
Beaten, stripped, and robbed.
Helpless in our naked need.
Lord have mercy.
What a mess we have made of the world.
Will somebody come and bandage our wounds?
Will somebody come and pick us up and take us to a place of healing where our life is restored?
When we find ourselves in the ditch, the question changes. It’s no longer, “Will I cross the road and be a neighbor to the person in need?” Now the question is, “Will somebody see me and not pass by?” Now the question is, “Will I let one of them touch me?” Will I let one of them be Christ to me?
Jesus got himself crucified by the violent mess we have made of the world, but mercy prevailed. Will we let him bandage our wounds?
Will we let ourselves be touched, carried, and healed by the man who revealed on the cross the extent to which God is a neighbor to all human beings?
Will we let ourselves be loved by the divine Neighbor and become fearless in our work for justice with him?
Will we let ourselves be loved and create together with him the beloved community?
 Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (New York: Harper-Collins, 1997), July 21-22.
 Facebook, Friday, July 8, 2016