The Road to Jericho                                                                                        Sun, 11th February, 2018

After all the living, the struggling, the vicissitudes of life, today I feel like I have started back at the beginning. Reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon On Being a Good Neighbor returned me to my Christian roots. Treating your neighbor as yourself is such a common phrase in the Christian tradition, yet it is an ideal that so many people utterly fail to live up to.

Of course the catalyst for this lesson was Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which is the perfect illustration in two ways: First is the obvious lesson that we must have compassion for others who are suffering, even when they are of a different social, religious or economic group. The robbed and beaten person lying by the side of the road to Jericho is a metaphor for anyone who needs help.

King characterizes the virtue that Jesus calls us to as altruism: “The Samaritan was good because he made concern for others the first law of his life.” Then King comes to what for me is the pivotal question for all human relations throughout history: human tribalism. He laments this as one of the great tragedies of our existence, that our neighborly concerns so often find their limits at the boundary of “tribe, race, class, or nation.” To this I would add other boundaries, such as gender, identity, and sexual orientation, among other divisions.

I have wrestled with this often in my own religious development. I view myself as a citizen of the world, and I love freely across the boundaries that many people would not cross. I cannot know the experiences of others, but I can have compassion for a fellow human being, especially one who suffers. Yet there are those who draw the line at their own kind, expressing disinterest at best for “the other” and, at worst, all-out enmity.

I am astounded by people who not only have the capacity to hate, but who actually wear their hate as a badge of honor. A fellow Unitarian-Universalist once recounted a story of how his treasured bumper sticker, which says “God Bless the World. No Exceptions,” invoked anger and hostility from someone who observed it. Somehow it was blasphemy, in the onlooker’s eyes, to assert that God loved muslims, migrants, atheists and gays. If I could just figure this one out, I could fix the world. How can we be so kind and loving to our “own kind,” having empathy and charity, and then cross over to the other side of the street (or worse) when we see a young black man approaching?

Finding the answer to this question is a big part of what is motivating me to pursue ministry. Along with Jesus and Dr. King, I refuse to give up on the idea that altruism is possible across the boundaries that have historically divided us.

And that’s the second lesson, more hidden, that King elucidates in this sermon, which is the reason that people normally do not help: fear. King recounted his own experience traveling in the Holy Land, finding himself on the very road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It’s a winding, steep and dangerous trek and this helped him realize the full meaning of the parable. The road to Jericho represents our fear. Maybe the robbers were still nearby and would attack again. Maybe the injured person was faking and it was a trap. The prevailing thought among those who don’t help is often “If I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?”

King brings it home by insisting that we must learn to reverse this question, to ask, “If I do not stop to help this person, what will happen to them?” Therefore, the neighborly ethic, to which we can all aspire, is that we must overcome our fear and accept risk to our own position, even our own lives, for the wellbeing of others. That’s a hard lesson, and one that we must work on every day.