Thoughts from the Pastor

Listening to our Neighbors

2020 has been a difficult year. I do not imagine that is a controversial statement and as this year continues, I more strongly believe that future generations will look back and learn about this period in history books and classes. From a new virus that led to a global pandemic, to financial insecurities, record unemployment, and now more recently our nation is faced once again with ongoing racism resulting in peaceful protest by many and violent and destructive rioting by a smaller but loud group.

     There is much I could address in this article, but it is racism and the resulting protests and riots that is most fresh and vivid in my mind. Racial tension is not new; it has been a part of human history dating back even to biblical times. In the gospels we see very clearly that there was tension between Jews and Samaritans. Certainly, a large part of that tension was rooted in faith, even still what resulted was two groups of people who deeply distrusted one another in all matters. Jews were unwilling to travel through Samaritan territory for they thought it would make them unclean, and Samaritans would taunt Jews and claim that they had the true faith. Ironically, the Jews and Samaritans held much in common and yet it was their differences that took center stage.

     This was the racial tension of Jesus day and so it might be helpful to consider how Jesus ministered in that tension. In Luke 10 Jesus told a teacher of the law that loving his neighbor as himself was an important part of fulfilling the law, this teacher then asked Jesus who was his neighbor. Christ’s response was a completely startling parable with a Samaritan as the hero. In John’s gospel (4: 7-42) Jesus breaks down a racial and gender barrier as he finds himself alone at a well with a Samaritan woman. The ensuing discussion covers some of the misunderstandings that exist between Jewish and Samaritan worshipers. Throughout the conversation Jesus listens and expresses sincere concern for this woman. In the end, this discussion results in the conversion of many in Samaria.

     Jesus made a habit of breaking through walls of division. Throughout his life he listened to, valued, and ministered to a variety of groups that could be considered outsiders – women, the poor, the unclean, racial enemies like the Samaritans, and even the oppressors of the day such as tax collectors and Centurions. Jesus spent much of his ministry modeling reconciliation and set the early church on a path that broke through old stereotypes and assumptions. Even so, as we read the book of Acts and look back at the forming of the early church, we still see a people struggling with this new reality. The prejudice was deeply rooted and not easily broken. 

     I will confess I have little patience for those who argue that we are in a post-racism society. Certainly, I rejoice we have moved beyond an era of slavery and Jim Crow, but we are naïve to think that the structures and prejudice that was so deeply rooted just quickly disappeared. Our brothers and sisters in the black community are begging us to hear that racism continues. It easy to read the stories of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Christian Cooper and assume these are isolated and extreme incidents. After all, injustice happens all over the place to all sorts of people. And yet, if we are willing to listen to our brothers and sisters in the black community, we hear the sobering truth that for many, racism is a constant struggle.

     I cannot know what it is like to be black in America. I often find myself at a loss for words partly because I too get caught up in the fantasy that racism is no longer an issue in our modern and advanced world. When I look back at the example Jesus left the church, I see a savior who acknowledged the racial, social, and gender divisions of his day and did the difficult work of breaking through those barriers. Jesus listened to, loved, and validated the very people society largely ignored.

     Even now I am not sure what to do to help break down the walls of racism; acknowledging that the divide is there is probably a good first step. I do not condone the looting and destruction that has resulted and my faith leads me to believe these are unhelpful methods but I’m also striving to not be distracted by the few violent voices and risk hearing the choirs of peaceful protest begging to be heard. I cannot understand the frustration, anger, and fear of those who live with the reality of racism daily. What I can do as a person of faith is follow in the footsteps of Jesus, I can listen, and I can love. Amen.