IT WAS FORTUITOUS — or perhaps providential — that Luke 10:25-37 had been chosen years ago as the Gospel reading for this past Sunday for Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and other Christians who use a common lectionary. For those who don’t use the lectionary, or who didn’t make it to church on Sunday, this would be a good time to remember what is probably Jesus’ least ambiguous parable.
You probably know it by heart: A lawyer asks Jesus who this neighbor is that he must love as himself, and Jesus tells the story of a traveler who had been robbed and left for dead. Two religious leaders saw him and ignored him, and then a Samaritan came to his assistance. Samaritans were members of a religious sect that first-century Jews considered vile, so painting the Samaritan as the good neighbor would be like telling a lot of Americans that our neighbors — the people for whom we have a biblical mandate to love as we love ourselves — are Syrian refugees. Or atheists. Or poor people. Or people of another race.
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We South Carolinians have been confronted before with the challenge of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and we handled it astoundingly well. Recognizing that my neighbor can be someone who doesn’t look just like me or think just like me or have life experiences very much like my own was what brought us together after the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church last summer. It’s what made us empathize with the families of the slaughtered innocents, look on in awe at their Christ-like forgiveness and agree that we needed to remove a symbol that was causing so much pain to these neighbors so many of us had not always thought of as neighbors.
It’s what should still be uniting us today as our nation and our state wrestle with violence by police and violence against police.
Police are essential to our society. They have unfathomably difficult jobs to do, and I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t a criminal would disagree that those who kill police officers are evil or deranged and must be punished. The idea that we cannot tolerate the killing of police crosses racial and religious and class and all sorts of other lines, and applies regardless of the race or religion or other characteristics of the police officer or the killer.
Likewise, nearly all of us agree that police have to shoot back when someone is shooting at them, or at innocent bystanders — regardless of the race or other characteristics of the police or the shooter or us.
There is far less consensus when police kill people who aren’t shooting at them … or who don’t even have weapons.
Before Mass on Sunday, a fellow parishioner asked if I knew how many white people and how many black people are killed each year by police in this country. I told him I didn’t but that if I wanted to compare how police treat black and white people, those weren’t the numbers I’d look at; I’d look at the rate of unarmed black and white people killed by police.
But as my priest reminded us a few minutes later — and as I’m sure a lot of other clergy reminded their parishioners this weekend — even that shouldn’t be a question we feel the need to ask.
Imagine what would happen if those of us who call ourselves Christians, or Jews, took seriously the Old Testament commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves. Imagine what would happen if we took Jesus’ definition of neighbor to heart.
If we did that, it wouldn’t matter whether the unarmed people killed by police were black or white, and it wouldn’t matter whether the police officer was black or white. All of us, black and white, would be upset.
Like our neighbors who already are upset, we probably wouldn’t be enraged if our neighbor had been killed while he was shooting at police. But we would be if it turned out that our dead neighbor was not posing a serious threat, or any threat, to anyone. We’d be enraged when nothing happened to the police officer who killed our innocent neighbor, when instead of justice our neighbor was falsely blamed for his own death.
Of course, if we all recognized who our neighbor was, all of us, black and white, would expect the police to acknowledge the tragedy, to apologize and to launch a serious, honest, independent investigation. Unless the investigation uncovered a real and present danger, all of us would expect the officer to be held to account — whether that meant being reprimanded or fired or facing criminal charges. If the officer was not clearly an outlier, all of us would expect police to fix whatever policies, procedures or culture allowed the officer to think killing someone who didn’t pose a threat was OK.
And we would get the attention and justice and changes that we expected, because we aren’t some small or marginalized group of “others” whose demands could be ignored. We are nearly everyone in South Carolina. And our neighbors are … everyone. Even — and perhaps especially — those who seem most different from us.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.