I returned home last night from two weeks in Costa Rica. The first week I was part of Christ Church Cathedral’s mission team of sixteen teenagers and eleven adults. We worked at an Episcopal church and school in the village of Estrada on the Caribbean side of the country. There, Afro-Caribbean and Latino Costa Ricans worked alongside our mission team, who represented at least three ethnic groups from the United States. I was struck, scarcely six days ago, by what a gift it was that such disparate people, separated by language, culture, and skin color, could work, eat, and laugh alongside one another for the sake of the Good News of God’s grace for all people.
The second week in Costa Rica consisted of much-needed family vacation, and my wife, son, daughter, and I surely enjoyed our time together. But virtually each evening we came back from our daytime excursions to news of tragedy at home. The events that came across the news feed were the mirror image of what I’d experienced as such blessing in Estrada just days before: On Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling was shot and killed point blank by police while pinned to the ground. On Wednesday outside St. Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castille was killed by a police officer after being stopped for a minor traffic infraction. On Thursday night in Dallas, five police officers–Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith–were killed while faithfully carrying out their sworn duty to protect and serve the public, in this instance protecting people who were protesting police abuses elsewhere, which is a difficult assignment in the very best of circumstances.
In each instance, my wife and I shared news of the goings-on at home with our kids, while at the same time attempting to preserve the atmosphere of our vacation. I finally exhausted my ability to do the latter on Thursday night, as I stared at the ceiling at midnight praying with sighs too deep for words and wondering about the United States’ societal split personality. On the one hand, we are the icon of Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are the land that continues to inspire Emma Lazarus’ tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to be free. On the other hand, we are a nation in which law-abiding black men are robbed of their life and liberty at traffic stops, and in which good police officers are paid far too little and are respected even less.
The conclusion to which I came, lying in the darkness, is that we have lost the moral compass of our most important national virtue, that of the commonweal. It is a word rarely used anymore. In fact, spellcheck attempts to revise it to “commonwealth.” But the two words have different meanings. The commonweal refers to the shared well-being of the people, to the self-giving of one citizen for the good of other citizens in need. Valuing the commonweal provides the social glue that makes a people strong. It is what grants one the courage to set aside bias and prejudice and imagine oneself in his fellow citizen’s shoes. It is what saw the United States through the Second World War. It is what made odd helpmates of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson.
Signs that we no longer value the commonweal are everywhere. In the initial draft of this blog post, I wrote several wearying paragraphs describing that loss in our political system, our social media, our lack of identification with anyone different than ourselves. The more I wrote, the more I realized that those paragraphs were distressingly unnecessary. In a perverse revision of Jefferson’s language, the lack of value we place in the commonweal has become “self-evident.”
This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Jesus sets his parable on the old Jericho Road through the Judean wilderness. I never fully understood the parable until this past May when I visited the Holy Land and spent an afternoon perched on a sun-scoured desert hilltop overlooking the old Jericho Road. I became aware then of just how dangerous traveling the road would have been in the ancient world. Water sources are non-existent. Rock slides are a constant possibility. Twists and turns are ubiquitous. The opportunity for bandits to prey upon an unwitting traveler are everywhere. The only way for anyone–regardless of race, creed, or social standing–to make it safely from Jericho to Jerusalem was was for each to look out for all, for everyone to cherish the commonweal. In Jesus’ parable, a traveler on the road is, indeed, set upon by bandits. He is bloodied and left in the ditch. A number of fellow travelers see the injured man there, but those with social standing, power, and the means to make a difference for good ignore him. In so doing, they ignore the commonweal. When they see the molested traveler in the ditch along the roadside, they pretend his plight does not affect them, and they walk the other way.
As a nation, we have lately walked the Jericho Road. We’ve become lost on its meandering course; we’ve discovered ourselves bereft of nourishment on the journey; we’ve encountered dangers; and we’ve seen the culmination of our collective decision to devalue and, indeed, ignore the commonweal.
This week, we–all of us–are the man in ditch, bloodied, confused, and disoriented. We don’t know how to pick ourselves up and continue on the way.
But at other times we, collectively, have also been those who have walked by on the other side, pretending that the plight of the one in the ditch has nothing to do with us.
The question is, are we also the Good Samaritan? Of all the characters on the Jericho Road, can we play that part? Can we be the ones who will defy the pattern, who will stop and engage the one or ones in need without question, without condition, without expectation of return, and redefine our national conversation?
More than ever before in my life–including after September 11, 2001–I believe that our collective soul depends upon our answers to these questions. Today, tomorrow, and in the days, months, and years to come, we must remember and cherish anew the commonweal. Or, in Jesus’ words, we must remember that we are neighbors.