A Nation Without Mercy

Yesterday, Daniel Penny was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the death of Jordan Neely from his chokehold. In response, Florida governor and presumed presidential candidate Ron DeSantis tweeted the following:

The anti-Semitic dog whistle is bad enough, but DeSantis’ branding of Penny as a Good Samaritan is equally troubling to me. DeSantis has plenty of company in this opinion, including the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, and the congressional representative of Texas’ 38th district:

I presumed this branding to be an egregious perversion of the meaning of the parable itself, but found it to be even worse than I recalled when I went back to read the parable in its full context. I reproduce it below (with my own emphases):

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25-37, New International Version

It is easy to forget that the original context in which Jesus told this parable was in response to the question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is this that should be, but too often is not, the animating principle of those of us who call ourselves Christians. The expert in the law quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 when Jesus asks him what is written in the Law. I highlight verses 29, 36, and 37, because it is how many of those in social media have answered the question “who is my neighbor?” that reveal us to be a nation without mercy.

As we observed last week (and unfortunately continue to observe even now), the prevailing sentiment of too many on social media (and in the nation at large) regarding Jordan Neely can be summed up as “he had to die, just in case”. Within hours of his death on the floor of the F train, the media made sure we knew about Neely’s mental illness, his long arrest record, previous violent assaults, even one of his public anti-LGBT outbursts. This latest impromptu obituary of a black man after a violent death had the same effect of those written before–to tell the public that the dead man deserved his fate.

The priest and the Levite in the parable are understood to be fellow Israelites–who nevertheless left their countryman in the road to die. The Samaritan by contrast, despite being someone for whom Israelites had such contempt they would not travel through Samaria or associate with them in any way, had mercy on the man. So if there is any parallel to be drawn between the parable of the Good Samaritan, and what happened on the train it is this: we are the priest and the Levite. By “we” I don’t just mean the people on the train, I mean all of us. A journalist named Issac Bailey has written this sentiment far more eloquently than I have, despite having treated a homeless man in New York City with far more humanity far more recently than I have in the place I call home. My days as a soup kitchen volunteer, feeding the poor and the homeless in the greater Washington area are years behind me. Far more recently I’ve stared past them, pretended they weren’t there, anything and everything other than actually trying to help them.

Beyond the immediate moment, we haven’t pushed back against the active and ongoing dehumanization and criminalization of the poor and mentally-ill. Both the rhetoric and the legislation of those we put and keep in power are an unfortunate reflection of our national contempt for those Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” in yet another parable, that of the sheep and the goats. That parable too, like that of the Good Samaritan is really about eternal life and how our earthly deeds reflect whether or not we love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.