I was only sent to the principal’s office once in my life. For most of the school year, I’d been involved in a milk-smuggling cartel. The scheme was quite simple. The first thing we’d do going through the lunch line was to pick up a carton of milk from the cooler that bridged an open door between the line and the cafeteria. We’d get a nod from one of our agents already embedded in the lunch room, telling us we were clear. Then each of us when grabbing a milk, would casually put a second (or a third) carton on top of the cooler that would conveniently be waiting for us as we exited the line and entered the cafeteria. I was a middle manager-type. I had not the guts, the imagination, nor the clout to be the principal architect behind this dairy devilry, but neither was I an entry-level lackey. I’d been at it for a few months which merited a promotion to henchman. And then we got busted. Mr. Schreurs said he had all of the names of everyone involved. He didn’t. We should have known by the laughably small quantities he pegged us for, but we turned ourselves in anyway. That was the end of my run-in with the law. Scared Straight by skim milk.
I was always a “good” kid. I was like that expert of the law nerd in Luke 10 who stood up and asked Jesus, “Teacher, Teacher! What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He and I both already knew the answer. We were just begging for the teacher to turn the question back around on us so we could show off and tell him the right answer in front of everyone. “You have answered correctly.” That stuff right there, those words fueled us better in 1985 than Marty McFly’s flux capacitor. Only ask questions when you already know the answers, don’t stick your neck out, stay out of trouble and you’ll do just fine.
The expert of the law should have stopped there. He should have kept his mouth shut. The answer he’d gotten was clean. Clinical. To the books. Just one more question, “And who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells a story. He brings shape to the law and he animates it by bringing people into it–characters–some frighteningly similar to him and some–so hopelessly, distantly other. They were the ones he was able to avoid by keeping his nose to the book and not sticking his neck out. But Jesus drew him into the story and by participation in the story implicated the expert and forevermore muddied the crisp lines of the law that demarcated his entire life. The hero, the “good” person, in Jesus’ story is the one who stuck his neck out. The one who didn’t calculate what he had to lose. The good person, the true neighbor, was not the one who avoided trouble, but got himself into it for the sake of another.
What it would be like to interview that priest or the Levite afterwards, telling them what the Good Samaritan did that they didn’t do? I imagine that there would have been legitimate regret. They were good people. I think we would have heard something like, “I’d wished I would have stopped. It kept me up 3-nights straight just thinking about it.” The priest, we’re told by his friend, declines to comment out of sheer embarrassment. “You’ve got to understand”, he pleads. “He was scared. He had a lot to lose. There was so much he didn’t know. He didn’t know if he was next, he didn’t know if this man was a con-artist, he didn’t know if the man was even alive and would put himself at risk of becoming unclean. He didn’t even know if he was a Jew, for crying out loud! It was regrettable, for sure, but understandable I’m sure you’ll see. A good man.” We nod our heads somewhat reluctantly, recognizing that they were perhaps “good people”.
I’m sure their responses sounded somewhat like white Evangelical pastors recalling their silence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, while many Jews and secularists stood with blacks. There is legitimate regret. “We were wrong.” “I wish we would have spoken up,” we hear. “It continues to haunt us to this very day.” And in similar fashion, friends explain, “You’ve got to understand. They weren’t racist. They were just doing their job, preaching the Gospel. They didn’t want to be associated with what the churches and the seminaries were crying out about the dangers of the Social Gospel. They couldn’t have said something even if they wanted to, and if they did, they might have lost their jobs. They had too much to lose. It’s regrettable looking back it, yes, but these were good churches and good Christians, I hope you understand.” And we nod our heads reluctantly, think back and say, yes, they were good people.
I recently heard someone say that he regretted some of the trouble that he got in, but also feared looking back at his life wishing he’d gotten into more. I fear looking back over my life wishing I’d actually fought for my refugee friend, Modeste, when he felt he was being treated unfairly by social services. I wrote him off as impulsive, as not understanding the system. I fear looking back over my life wishing I’d actually fought for my friends Raquel, and Zaira, and Gomez, as they live their lives in the shadows as undocumented immigrants here. I can hear my own excuses 30-years down the road, “You’ve got to understand. You were doing the best you could–you got them better housing, you connected them with jobs, you shared your lives, you shared the Gospel. You depended upon financial support from the church. Can anyone blame you for not advocating on behalf of immigrants to Christians who don’t share your views on immigration reform? You had too much to lose.” And I nod my head reluctantly. A good person.
I’m beginning to believe that today, the man we find stripped, beaten, and half-dead on the Jericho road is the illegal immigrant. As the American church, we don’t have a clue what we’re supposed to do with him. Like experts of the law, we’ve got it worked out on paper. There’s a clear violation of American law, a government that’s God-ordained. They’re in the wrong. How can we possibly come to their defense? If illegal immigrants are exploited, if they’re underpaid, if they’re beaten up and stripped down, they shouldn’t have been walking down that road in the first place. So we pass by on the other side. We leave them up for the ACLU, the bleeding-heart, half-bred liberals, to take pity on them and bandage their bleeding. We leave them up to the ERs, to let the taxpayers pay the two thousand denarii bill. We leave them up to Pilate and the other politicos to decide what their fate will be while the radio talk show vultures cast spiraling shadows on the desert road.
One of my greatest fears is that 6 months from now immigration reform will have passed. I’ll applaud the fact that finally my friends and my neighbors and 11 million other undocumented immigrants will feel like they have a place, a home. Belonging. But I fear that the church will have had little or nothing to do with it. By that time the attitude within the church towards the immigrant will have changed. They will finally have met the requirements of the law, now worthy to be called ‘neighbors’.
Then thirty years from now our children and our grandchildren will ask us who were the real neighbors to the undocumented immigrants. They’ll ask because they want so badly to hold onto the faith that has been passed down to them, but they ask because they want to know it’s more than rhetoric, more than dogma, more than law. They want to know that this faith is about more than being “good people”. They want something or someone worth following that calls them to stick their necks out for the vulnerable. They want a faith that gets them into trouble for the sake of others without calculating the financial, political, social, even theological risks to do so.
When that time comes, I pray we’ve got something more than to say than apologetically stammering, “Well, you’ve got to understand, we were good people…”