First there is smoke on the highway — thick and black, as if the unknown fire was still burning. As I draw closer, the source of the dark clouds becomes clear — a car is on fire. Even though it is happening on the opposite side of the highway, the requisite “gaper’s delay” makes it easy to see everything that is going on. A man is a few feet from the car — he’s distraught. This is his car. Other vehicles are driving around him and the car, and one more fact — the vehicle is alone.
So what happened? A car that suffered no accident or apparent damage simply burst into flames? Don’t we all want to know what happened?
I have to know. I drive a car made in the 20th Century. It has 215,000 miles on it. This is unknown territory for me. What I’m saying is — flames are a possibility. So I should let this smoke on the highway teach me something.
I should at least help him.
Instead, I slow down from speeding long enough to check him out, and not a half mile later I’m back to around 85-90 mph. I’m a terrible Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan parable stayed with me after that. And this was before the George Zimmerman verdict, which acquitted a man who presumably acted as a “good neighbor” by approaching Trayvon Martin, whom he shot and killed. Florida state law and a jury agreed with Mr. Zimmerman, to the relief of some and the disgust of others. The jury’s decision came late on Saturday night, and the next morning the lectionary text for preachers across this country was Luke 10:25-37 — the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Wow.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law — a source of collective ire at present — is an iteration of the Good Samaritan Laws that exist in this country: laws that offer protection from lawsuits for those who help or protect their neighbors. If you dig a hole to save a child’s life, that child’s family can’t sue you for damage to their lawn. Sounds like a good thing, right? Sounds like the spirit of these laws comes directly from the Bible.
Neighborhood Watch programs are born from the same spirit: they empower those who want to protect their neighbor with the authority to do so. George Zimmerman was allowed to have a gun so that he could be a Good Samaritan.
The problem with Neighborhood Watch programs and stand your ground laws is that, in their rush to be the Samaritan in the story, they never ask the question the lawyer asks in Luke 10: “Who is my neighbor?”
If Sanford, FL, wasn’t so nervous about the growing black population, which spurred the creation of their Watch program in 2011, maybe they’d see that all those black folk moving in were not invaders but neighbors. Maybe, instead of seeing their community as “falling into the hands of robbers,” and oh, there goes another one right there, they would see the opportunity to manage the changing tide.
But instead, it is clear that the old guard of Sanford — the priests and Levites of this tragic tale — walked past the opportunity to welcome their new neighbors. Many systems failed, yes, but the primary failure was a basic interpretation of a critical scripture, one that is central to the ministry of Jesus. It is a failure of hospitality that creates the program that gives Mr. Zimmerman his gun. It is a failure to actually read the Bible we pretend to take so seriously.
As far as our collective conscience is concerned, there is now smoke on the highway. Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal are flames that still burn. As we pass this scene in anger, or relief, or confusion, be careful not to inhale the toxic fumes of cynicism. We can do something. We can learn something to become better citizens, better Samaritans.
The argument has been which conversation is the most important. Will this fuel a new dialogue about race in America? About the validity of laws that empower aggressive people, or laws that improperly moralize religious ideas? Will we FINALLY talk about bullying against youth, or profiling prejudice, or the right way to hold (and confront) power? Many conversations need to be had; many protests are in order.
Good news: there are enough of us to have all of them. Let’s stop fighting over what’s more important here.
What’s MOST important is Trayvon Martin is dead — no disbursement of justice will ever satisfy that pain. The car is on fire, and the ensuing trial only fanned the flames.
Now we must act. If the race or power or gun control or child protection aspects of this tragedy disturb you, know that they all flow from one source: the failure to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Every day we ought to wake up and ask this, and be horrified when our laws don’t support our new answers.
This is not a Sanford, FL, problem. It is the American dilemma, and our interpretation of “neighbor” is at the heart of every conflict we face.
Some think a trial was won or lost. But when we lost Trayvon Martin, the one we call “black boy”, we lost again our neighbor.
Julian DeShazier serves as the Senior Minister of University Church in Chicago. A native of the city, he graduated from Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to his current position, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Education. He is also an award-winning musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.”