Crime is rarely as intrusive and wrenching as it has been this last week. Since most of us do not live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, it is often just an abstraction that we are more than happy to delegate to the police, prosecutors, courts and sometimes juries.
It is hard, however, to keep crime at arm’s length in the world of phone cameras and social media. We can, of course, avert our eyes and believe that TV shows with their dogged detectives and forty minute plots represent reality.
Crime shows seem non-stop and not infrequently deal with “criminal intent.” But, what about civil intent? Is it also an abstraction? Is “love thy neighbor” just something that religious people say because it is in the Bible and makes them feel good?
Civility is literally the bedrock of a peaceful and prosperous nation. Yet, the nation in which we live is none too civil. Words and acts of division have become the wallpaper of a tabloid nation and now that we can all be publishers the noise has become deafening.
I suspect in most Houses of Worship this last Sunday there were searching prayers and an appeal to God to bring us peace. Similar appeals are common in the aftermath of mass shootings, as public officials line up behind microphones. But then the next day happens, and most are pulled back into the culture, and it is often uncivil.
This last Sunday I once again revisited the story of the Good Samaritan. My guess is that this parable told by Jesus Christ to a lawyer who asked him “who is our neighbor,” is the most widely known of all his teachings.
At the risk of committing a theological and political error, let me go back to the aftermath of September 11, 2001. My wife and I lived in Manhattan when the World Trade Center was attacked. Because of an earlier commitment, shortly after the attack, we travelled to Italy, where for the first time I encountered the phrase “We are all New Yorkers.” I heard it often for the next several months. There was, at the time, an overarching unity in the face of evil. The “other” was represented by radical jihadists as Americans of all ethnicity, and political affiliation hung flags, attended services and joined in patriotic songs.
Returning to last Sunday the gospel lesson was quite simple; even the lawyer got it on the first try. The good was represented by the Samaritan who stopped to help the beaten man. Sinfulness was represented by the two persons who enjoyed a higher social and religious standing but did not stop to help. The Samaritan did not become the “Good Samaritan” because of who he was; he was good because of what he did.
Perhaps we should draw inspiration from a transcendent moment. If the essence of the “good Samaritan” were repeated millions of times a day, we would find the “otherness” that has begun to occupy so much of our public space giving way.
As we face a maddeningly complicated world, better that we judge by what people do more than by whom people are. I would add that it would be better if Sunday (or the day people reflect on or worship God) was not just another day but helped shape the rest of the week.
Today there is a lot of talk about how we need a national conversation on race. Not a new suggestion; Meet the Press traced the earliest use of such a proposal to Senator Bill Bradley, who, while running for his party’s presidential nomination in 1991, suggested one on race. I suspect more than a conversation we need to internalize the actions of the Good Samaritan—we need moral strength. I wonder if yet another discussion will help.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.