A writer must always be aware of his tone. If he is not careful, his tone will betray him, and say things he thinks, but does not want said. I was aware of my tone as I began working on this post. I had determined to be snarky, having in mind those with bad intentions; those who throw rocks and hide their hands. And I wanted to hurl a few stones of my own. I was thinking of those who know and yet practice deception, concealing the truth in a flood of details in order hide oceans of bad intentions. I wanted to expose them, and say to them, “I know what you’re doing.”
But my thoughts turned to those who practice but don’t know. I remembered those who don’t know you can drown truth in legal details, but who sincerely believe you best reveal them with precision. Those who believe that before we can understand one another we must give a clear definition of the terms, came to mind. So I had to guard my tone, and rethink my audience, if I were going to have any hope of persuasion.
This summer was the first time it happened, or that I noticed. After a long list of black men and women in years and days past died at the hands of police and vigilantes, 2020 began with Ahmaud Arbery. Then on the morning of my wedding anniversary, the police were used as a weapon to threaten the life of a black man, bird watching in Central Park. Then later the same day, the disturbing images of the death of George Floyd began circling the globe. These events led naturally to the cries of people of color for the nation to finally recognize and respond to its systemic racism. These events and the others captured on video, said in pictures what our thousand words could not. So I used my voice to join that cry. And that’s when it happened, or when I noticed. It came from members of the body of Christ, a simple request for a definition of systemic racism. And we have been negotiating the details with very little agreement on the definition, let alone whether it even exists or not.
The question, at that moment, fell strangely upon me. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but I had never caught the nature of the question before. At that moment in history, the question felt malignant and dark, or at best, a distraction from the dark and malignant.
Luke 10:29 (NAS): 29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Many will recognize this verse as the beginning of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. Yet what’s not often recognized is the nature of the lawyers question is what’s at the heart of Jesus’ story and Luke’s intended meaning.
Under the inspiration of the Spirit, Luke exposes the heart behind the question. He tells the reader that the lawyer wishes to justify himself with his clarifying question. In doing so, Luke expects the lawyer’s intentions to shape our understanding of Jesus’ response. The lawyer asks Jesus to define his neighbor, not that he may know the answer, but that he may defend himself.
Please be patient with me here. I am not simply drawing and analogy in order to question the motives of those who ask for a definition. The greater point is that Jesus does not simply offer up a definition, but He tells the lawyer a story. He tells him a story with a historical setting and relatable characters. Jesus seems to understand how best to make known even the revelation of God.
Jesus seems to know that a definition will give the lawyer opportunity to justify himself. But a story; a story, with a recognizable situation to provide the necessary context for meaning, will convey the unarguable human sense of what it means to be a neighbor. A story does what a definition cannot do. A definition limits and pins down, allowing loop holes and justifications. A definition allows the intent and significance to be swept away in the knit picking of ever finer and finer points. But a story gives life and truth, puts good and bad behavior on display, causes us to laugh, smile, weep, connecting with and awakening our humanity. Even the lawyer reluctantly acknowledges the story’s proven neighbor. It may very well be why the Bible has more stories than definitions.
Jesus started his story for the lawyer with, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” If you ask me for a definition of systemic racism, I may begin with “A man was going for a run in Glynn County, Georgia…” Or I may say, “A woman’s house was routinely devalued by an appraiser…” I could start by saying, “A couple was regularly denied a bank loan…” or “He was approached by an undercover officer because he fit the description …” The last one is from my own college experience.
So please don’t ask us for a definition when we have told you countless stories of systemic racism that communicate the human sense of what we mean. Even if you don’t believe us, you at least get a sense of what we mean by it. We have defined it with our lives.