George Floyd was laid to rest in a private burial ceremony earlier this week in Houston, following a massive funeral at the Fountain of Praise Church. The soul-searching that followed his tragic death has made the nation restless. Many police departments throughout the United States have already begun instituting reforms in an effort to prevent further tragic deaths and restore public trust, which is essential for police to assist communities in keeping the peace. The widespread failure of our institutions to protect the common good has resulted in both peaceful protests and violent riots. It has resulted in torrents of anger and blame from politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens on mass and social media. This response is paralyzing, offering up temptations of both hatred and despair. In the midst of death, tragedy, violence, and hatred, it is hard to do what is most desperately needed: take responsibility.
Avoiding responsibility is an age-old sin. Upon eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). When asked by God if he had eaten the forbidden fruit, “The man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate’” (Gen. 3:12). After Cain killed his brother, “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Gen. 4:9).
We often think of taking responsibility as an admission of guilt, but the duty to take responsibility transcends questions of praise and blame. Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan:
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37).
The parable is one of Jesus’ most well-known and beloved. It is a parable of compassion and care, but it is also an answer to a question. A lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Jesus answers with the question, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” (Luke 10:26). The lawyer answers truly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). The clever lawyer then falls into the age-old sin: “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29).
This is what we so tragically see today. Wanting to justify themselves, they rage at abstract institutions and systems in hatred and then despair. We are commanded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). And what does the parable of the Good Samaritan show us about who our neighbor is? The Samaritan is first “moved with pity.” The underlying Greek is not simply “moved with pity” or compassion but rather to be “moved in one’s bowels.” When confronted with this deep unease upon witnessing injustice, what does he do? He takes responsibility and acts with compassion and care. Responsibility is first and foremost about recognizing our ability to respond and then acting accordingly out of love. It is, etymologically, a personal promise.
It is true that our institutions are in crisis and that others have failed in their duty, but it is an abdication of our own responsibility to respond with hatred and despair rather than compassion and love. As Rev. Robert Sirico recently shared in a moving video message, in order to have hope for the future we must take responsibility in our own contexts and vocations for the future. As Michael Nagler observed in the forward to Eknath Easwaran’s biography of Gandhi: “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world—that is the myth of the ‘atomic age’—as in being able to remake ourselves.”
(Photo credit: John Benson. CC BY 2.0.)