When my family moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, we purchased the only house that was available in our price range. After moving in, we learned that in the house to our left lived a neighbor from Chile (I’m from Argentina) and to our right one from the Philippines (my wife and I were both born in Taiwan). Unbeknownst to us, we moved into a neighborhood with people very much like us.
The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the neighbor was not like my neighbors. The neighbor was the one who was compassionate towards someone very different from them. The central dispute between the Samaritans and Jews was the proper location to worship. While insignificant for us today, it had eternal consequences for them. Yet the Samaritan in the parable was able to see beyond their theological differences and care for a fellow human being.
Today, our neighbors do not live in our neighborhoods because America is a segregated nation — not just racially, but also ideologically. The average American neighborhood is comprised of people who are similar to each other. The exposure index used by the U.S. Census Bureau to predict how likely a given group will be exposed to any other racial groups has shown significantly less integration in the last 50 years. Non-Hispanic whites are the least likely to interact with people of other races. There is a lower likelihood that a white person will have a meaningful interaction with a non-white person today than in the 1960s. As a result, public schools are as racially divided today as they were in the 1960s. This is partly due to residential segregation, which continues to persist. But the segregation does not only show divisions by race. In his book “The Big Sort,” Bill Bishop documents the ideological segregation we are experiencing. Americans are not only sorting themselves out by race, but by ideology and politics. We live with people who look like us and think like us. This political segregation is only increasing. Much like before, today’s segregation leads to more separate and more unequal communities. For many of our neighbors, segregation leads to worsening poverty, sickness (such as asthma or lead poisoning), educational attainment and advancement opportunities.
Who then are your neighbors? If they are the immigrants, refugees and those who have suffered generations of racial injustice, they will probably not live where the average Presbyterian lives. They will most likely be physically, culturally and theologically different. Non-whites and immigrant Christians have traditionally been more conservative on issues such as homosexuality, marriage and abortion. Yet like the Good Samaritan, we must look beyond ideological differences to be a good neighbor. But unlike the Good Samaritan, the harm suffered by our neighbors is not only personal but institutional. To be merciful today requires us to understand how our political, economic and social systems hurt our neighbors so that we can fight the principalities and powers that robs us of our human dignity. The task is monumental. But our faith simultaneously compels us to act and give us hope that we will succeed. This task cannot be achieved individually or by any one church. It takes a movement to eradicate generations of injustice — a movement that will involve networks of individuals and institutions working together to dismantle and destroy unjust systems. Much like the black church did a generation ago, we too must be willing to join forces with anyone willing to work toward a common good. We must support the work of those who have long toiled for justice and resist the urge to start new ministries, lest we create added burdens that might distract from the important work. Rather, follow the leadership of those who are already at the frontlines of this important work.
Yet it is difficult to join these movements without examining our lives and our churches. Does anyone see us as Good Samaritans? Do we get involved in relieving anyone’s misfortune? Do we stop at the scene of a crime and stay to offer help trusting God for protection in the midst of danger? Are we putting the injured on our donkey and paying for their medical bill? If we are not being the Good Samaritan, maybe we are the victims who have been robbed of the radical grace and generosity Christians are supposed to exemplify. But there are Good Samaritans in our midst. That is the Good News. God sends us Good Samaritans often in the incarnate form of a child born in a manger. The Good Samaritans who are theologically, ideologically and culturally different from us. Like the black church during the civil rights era, they were the Good Samaritans from the margins of our society whose sacrifice saved the nation. They are still here today. We can follow them, learn from them and imitate them so that we may “go and do likewise.”
TONY LIN is a Presbyterian minister who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Argentina. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is a research scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.