On May 1, 2023, Daniel Penny killed Jordan Neely on a New York City subway train. Neely was a homeless Michael Jackson impersonator who suffered from mental illness; Penny is a veteran marine. According to sources, 30-year-old Neely was throwing garbage at folk on the train and saying that he was hungry and didn’t care if he met his demise. As a New Yorker, I can sadly say that encountering mentally ill people happens on public transportation, and seasoned city dwellers typically ignore such rants or move to the next train car. Penny responded by applying a lethal chokehold.
After police arrived on the scene, Penny was initially questioned and released without being charged. However, after public outcry about Neely’s needless death, prosecutors arrested 24-year-old Penny on May 12 and charged him with second-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
In the wake of this tragedy, some members of the public raised more than $150,000 for Neely’s family. The fundraiser supporting Penny’s legal fees, hosted by a crowdfunding site that publicly declares to be Christian and is associated with many right-wing causes, is now more than $2.9 million. When people donate on this website, they can leave comments, and I’ve noticed that many of Penny’s supporters, who extend beyond New York, claim to be Christian and call the former marine a “good Samaritan.”
As a pastor, I feel called to use Scripture to vet the comparison of Penny with the good Samaritan. I am also a New Yorker whose home church is Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a long history of outreach to the homeless, many of whom have mental concerns. As such, I feel called to demand justice, particularly in how the city deals with its homeless and mentally ill citizens.
Luke 10:29-37 speaks of a Samaritan who stopped to help a victim – someone from a different background and probably had very different opinions than his own – along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In case the obvious needs to be stated, the Samaritan in the Bible didn’t stop to strangle the injured person as Penny strangled Neely, who was hungry and in need of mental health care. Calling Penny a good Samaritan is antithetical to Jesus’ example of how one should treat one’s neighbor in this parable. One cannot argue that a choke hold that lasted for 15 minutes helped Neely. By comparison, Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, leading to Floyd’s death. Restricting someone’s air passage, especially for a prolonged amount of time, is a lethal maneuver. It is not “good.”
People need to have some basic tools in their “interactions boxes” that will help them not to panic when they encounter people with mental illness. Those who wish to emulate Christ Jesus can look to his treatment of the Gerasene demoniac in Luke 8:26-39. This should give us pause for thought on how we treat those with mental disorders. Jesus does not use the chains, both physical and spiritual, to strangle the young man in the cemetery to death. Rather, the Lord loosens the bonds and sets him free of his disease, restoring him to life among the living.
When the Lord God breathes life into a person, as God did when creation began, cutting off their ability to respire is not okay. Jesus loved the cries of wee Jordan Neely as he made his debut in the world. Christ also wept for Neely as he took his last breath. In Exodus 20, the sixth commandment reminds believers that they shall not kill. God holds those who kill their siblings and neighbors to account for the deaths, as the Lord did when Cain killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8-10).
In The Great Emergence, the late theologian Phyllis Tickle posited that the church experiences what she called a “rummage sale” every 500 years. Tickle explained that faith practices that are no longer practical or relevant to the current generation are evaluated and changed for new ones that will develop believers’ walk of faith. This is not news to protestant Christians that adopt the notion that the reformed church is always reforming: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.
If Christians believe that Penny is a good Samaritan for taking the life of a mentally ill man, I believe that the church is in desperate need of a “rummage sale.”
Beloved siblings in Christ, borrowing the notion from the Apostle Paul, it is my hope that we will not be conformed to societal norms, but that we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) through the Holy Spirit as we study God’s Word and live out our call to love God and to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Let us, the church, reform our treatment of those who are experiencing homelessness and mental crises; my prayer is that in changing our mindsets and becoming more compassionate, we will model the life of Jesus. It is time for the spiritual rummage sale, to clear out old attitudes toward mental illness and the poor, and to begin again.