LOVING When It isn't Easy: Reflections on a Parable
In Luke 10.25-37 we read one of the most famous short stories of all history - The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable was extremely offensive in its original social context but has lost much of its "edge" for us today because we are unfamiliar with the hate that seethed under the surface between two races: the Jews and Samaritans. However, I read something the other day that I think might help bring us back into dialogue with the scandal of this text.
Spencer Perkins (with Chris Rice) in his book More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel tells a frightening story that took place in February 1970 when he was a mere 16 years of age. His father, John Perkins (a hero of mine), was a minister and a vocal leader in Mendenhall, MS for Civil Rights. Spencer relates how a van full of children was pulled over by the State Police and the children were all arrested for disturbing the peace (!). The driver for some reason was allowed to go -- she, of course, went straight to John to report the incident. That night, February 7, John and Curry Brown got into their vehicle to drive to the Rankin County Jail in Brandon. But the whole incident was a set-up. The State Police expected John and arrested him and Curry. In the wee hours Spencer's mom received an anonymous phone call: "Have they hung'em yet?"
Spencer, his mom and a rather large group from John's church journeyed to Brandon to find John and Curry. And find them they did, in jail . . . and almost dead! John Perkins had been beaten to within an inch of his life. His eyes were swollen shut. His skull was swollen with knots resulting from the blows of a nightstick. John would never be the same. Spencer writes, "I can still see vividly what my father looked like in that Brandon jail. I suppose a sixteen-year old boy would never be able to erase such a memory . . . he was covered in blood." Spencer then confesses "the hardest memory of all is the humiliation my father suffered."
If I had lived through such an experience, would it be possible for me to love? Loving isn't always easy. In fact is can be quite hard! Spencer found it hard as well. He relates how his father struggled with the meaning of Christianity after his beating by white police. Listen carefully to his words, "I watched with interest as my father struggled through a crises of faith. Frankly, I hoped he would conclude that the gospel and Christianity were for white folks. I hoped that he would finally see the light and agree with Malcolm X that black people could not afford to be Christians because it cost them their dignity. I hoped he would decide that we should have nothing more to do with white people."
But that is not what John Perkins decided. Spencer says at church people would periodically ask if loving everyone included white people. John's response was "loving my neighbor means especially loving white folks." John, to this day, has continued to love white people. Spencer honestly confesses his struggles with resentment but especially loves white people - even when it isn't easy.
Do we as white Christians, black Christians, yellow Christians love everyone? Especially those of another ethnic group? Do whites love blacks? If not, we have never heard, much less understood, what Jesus' parable is really about. We, like the expert in religious doctrine, like to evade the issue by asking "And who is my neighbor?" (Lk 10.29). We evade because loving isn't easy and it never will be. But Jesus, the Samaritan, John Perkins ... and even Spencer show we can love -- even when it is not easy - because we are not just white or black but Christians.
I think we could nuance this further for our contemporary setting and ask not only about black, Hispanic and white . . . but do we love Iraqis?
Resources on John Perkins. You can read a full blown biography by Stephen E. Berk A Time to Heal: John Perkins, Community Development, and Racial Reconciliation (Baker 1997).
Another radical book is He's My Brother: A Black Activist and a Former Klansman Tell Their Stories (Baker 1994). This is simply the amazing story of how God used Perkins to convert Thomas Tarrant III (a jailed for attempted murder Grand Dragon of the KKK).
Online: The John Perkins Foundation