Most of the time, the endless scroll of catastrophes on my phone or in the news produces in me only a distant sense of dread. Wars feel far away; natural disasters seem remote. I flick my finger past one heartbreaking tale after another, perhaps occasionally pausing long enough to shrug a half-formed prayer in the direction of a God whom I hope cares more than I do.
But sometimes, bad news stops me in my tracks. This thing feels different. This report jumpstarts action. Suddenly, I just have to post on social media, call my senators, give money, argue with my relatives, march, knit, buy a t-shirt.
Why do some tragedies provoke action, while others barely blip over the background noise? If I’m honest, what feels urgent is often what affects me—or someone like me.
Recently, I broke a toe while on vacation. For days, I hobbled along, trying to keep up with my family’s activities. Fourth of July found me limping along a trail, the tote bag on my left shoulder and the folding chair on my right shoulder both banging into my crutches with each hop toward the spot where my family planned to meet me.
“Hopefully someone will take pity on you,” my mother-in-law had said as we’d planned the complicated logistics that led me to hop that path all by myself. But it seemed that no one would. Families cruised past me, eager to start their Independence Day festivities.
Then, I heard a voice behind me. “Can we help you?” A middle-aged couple stopped beside me. “I was on crutches when I had a bad foot,” the man explained.
Isn’t that the way? I thought as I continued hobbling, my steps now much lighter because the man and his wife had taken the bag and the chair off my shoulders. It takes someone who knows what it’s like, to be willing to stop. Urgency requires empathy.
When it comes to the fight for racial justice, White Americans often lack urgency. So often, we White people just aren’t moved to act on behalf of our Black and Brown fellow citizens. The struggles of communities of color in our midst fade into the background noise of faraway wars and distant disasters. There are so many problems in the world—why should we act on this one?
Maybe it’s because we lack empathy. Maybe we’ve never stopped to imagine what it’s like to wear brown skin in a society built for what it calls “white.” Maybe it’s hard to see the person with the broken toe unless we ourselves have experienced a bad foot. “It’s very emotional for me,” said a former Ukrainian official at the outset of the Russian invasion, “because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” We empathize more with people we feel are more like us.
Jesus told a story about people who lacked urgency in the face of another’s problem. When a man was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road, Jesus said, two religious leaders just kept walking. Helping the dying man just didn’t seem like an urgent matter. Then, a man who was different from all of them—a member of the hated racialized sect known as Samaritans—stopped to help. How did a member of an out-group manage to feel empathy for the person in the in-group, when the two members of the in-group did not? The one who loves across human lines of ins and outs, Jesus says, is the one who truly loves their neighbor.
It’s one thing to read the story of Good Samaritan and resolve to really, truly, this-time-for-realsies, love everyone just like he did. It’s another thing to return to the endless barrage of daily disasters and figure out exactly how Jesus would have us love all the people with all their problems. “But what are we supposed to do?” is a common White response to the problem of injustice.
For me, my growing sense of urgency as a White person in the face of racial injustice comes from locating myself in a different place in the story of the Good Samaritan. I’m not the Good Samaritan, trying to decide which poor troubled half-dying soul to lavish with time, money, and attention. I’m the religious leaders, just waking up to the fact that my whole life, I’ve been scrolling by and doing nothing.
The urgency of this moment, for me, is not a matter of fresh empathy for a new situation. It’s a matter of repentance over all the empathy I now see I previously withheld. Perhaps the first urgent thing for me as a White American is not to do, but, as the etymology of the verb repent suggests, re-think. To go back over the long dusty roads of my life and recognize the implicit biases that were baked into my responses, and lack of responses. The most urgent thing is to begin to understand myself and the world in a new way.
I can also locate myself, in the story of the Good Samaritan, in the one lying half-dead on the side of the road. Racism and complacency have immobilized me, leaving me unable to see or act rightly. My sin-corroded heart only half beats.
It is here, lying paralyzed by my lack of love, that the only true Good Samaritan finds me. Jesus—the only Good teacher, the one who was himself cast out and left for dead—moves toward me now with grace and love. It is only under his ministrations, when I have basked in his forgiveness and felt his love revive me, that I can begin to move again. This time, with his urgent power.
By Sarah Sanderson