In the midst of the Paula Deen fiasco and the George Zimmerman trial, argument over what constitutes racism and sexism and “profiling” has risen to a fever pitch once again. “Everybody does it,” the standard argument of adolescents caught in an uncomfortable place, is one response. “Not me,” is the even more infantile defense. Denial of responsibility for one’s words and actions is increasingly the new standard—with no cognizance of the fact that it doesn’t really matter if one’s intentions were good. As the old adage says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Think you’re unaffected by what others say and do? That you never blindly accept as “true” or “right” that others do and say without question? Take this “test.”
There’s a story in the New Testament in which, in answer to a lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what the Hebrew law says. He replies, among other things, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Reportedly to make sure he isn’t setting himself up for judgment, the lawyer then asks who his neighbor is. Jesus elaborates with a parable about a guy on a trip who is beaten and robbed and what three other guys who happen along the same road later do (or don’t). What is the name of the parable?
If your answer includes the word “Samaritan,” I applaud your awareness, at least, of this one story in the Bible. But if your answer includes the word “good,” you might be guilty of racism. Or, at best, an unwitting carrier of it.
A skilled English composition teacher or grammarian or writer knows that the insertion of any adjective modifies the noun which follows it, most often as an intentionally exclusionary device. To call a day “beautiful” excludes from the reader or listener’s imagination those days that are “not beautiful,” according to their definitions of beauty. (I submit that the rain in Asheville, NC that would cause me to describe today as a “not-so-beautiful” day would be the very feature that would cause those in the southwest to describe their day as “beautiful,” for instance.) To describe a stove as “hot” intentionally excludes “warm” or “cold” from the sensual experience.
Obviously, there is nothing inherently wrong with adjectives or modifiers, or their use as exclusionary devices. Our problems begin when we use emotionally-tinged modifiers with nouns that serve to differentiate one human demographic from another.
Before I go too far afield from my original premise, however, I would invite you to grab your Bible, if you have one, or search for the passage online. If you like, click here. It’s Luke 10:25-37.
Did you notice?
If you read from a version into which some human translator has inserted a “heading,” I would mention that an English composition teacher or editor worth his or her “salt” would mark down the grade of the student whose paper included this header for the story if it were written today. This story isn’t a parable about a good Samaritan. It’s a parable about a good neighbor.
If you haven’t yet begun to see what I’m getting at, go back and read the passage (minus the header). Nowhere does Jesus ever refer to the man as anything but a Samaritan. Someone else along the way inserted the word “good.”
But without skipping a beat, there are those among us—unfortunately most of us, it seems—who accept the exclusionary premise that this Samaritan was different from other Samaritans. That by virtue of his being Samaritan, there was a need to differentiate him further, to include him in an “exclusive” group of “good” Samaritans, as opposed to the “usual” lot of “bad” Samaritans.
Jesus chose to use a Samaritan in the example for a reason. The lawyer, no doubt, had already decided, without justification, that Samaritans were despicable, immoral, inferior… because they were Samaritans.
Samaria no longer exists today as a geographic entity, so we have to use our imaginations. If he were here today, what demographic group do you think Jesus would choose to demonstrate his point about neighbors? Homosexuals? Heterosexuals? Blacks? Whites? Asians? Africans? Hispanics? Jews? Arabs? Republicans? Democrats? Men? Women? Liberals? Conservatives? Teachers? Firemen? Beer Drinkers? Union Members? Christians? Muslims? Buddhists? Mormons? Americans? Europeans? Koreans? Georgians? New Yorkers? Texans? Californians? The 1%? The 99%? The filthy rich? The filthy Occupy X demonstrators?
Okay. Who is my neighbor? A certain human (gender, religion, skin color, ethnicity, nationality unspecified) stopped for gas and was ripped off by a thief (gender, religion, skin color, ethnicity, nationality unspecified). A Christian Republican, a black Muslim, and a liberal woman all individually stop for gas at the same place…which one is the neighbor?
If, at any moment, you label, diminish, or judge another individual in a demographic group into which you were not born on the basis of their membership in that same group, wittingly or unwittingly, or stand by and allow it to happen, you’re a racist. And so, too, am I.
[And Jesus said:]
36…which of these three do you think proved himself a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers? 37 He answered, “The one who showed pity and mercy to him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Lord, have mercy.