If President Joe Biden wants to heal the soul of the nation, he must lead this nation into becoming better neighbors.
Lying deep in the soul of America is a willingness to embrace inequality -- both explicitly and implicitly. This willingness has fostered a culture of bias that has often twisted our interaction with people of differing races, sexual orientations, religious views and political perspectives.
The flame of bigotry has been with us since the beginning and has caused America to be a society full of bad neighbors.
What makes a bad neighbor?
To better understand, we must recall the parable of the good Samaritan.
The Gospel of Luke tells the story of a man who was walking down the road and was attacked by robbers, who stripped his clothes, beat him and left him for dead. A priest and a Levite walked past the suffering man, ignoring his condition. These individuals, passing by the afflicted man unmoved, were just as bad as the robbers who had beat him. All were bad neighbors.
As we reflect on our current society, we are able to see the citizens who have been the robbers -- those who have found their own value by harming others. These bad neighbors have implemented policies that have separated immigrant children from their families. They have sought to open schools and the economy in the middle of a pandemic caused by a vicious virus despite the detrimental effects on minority communities.
They have denied low-income individuals access to quality health care, rejected life-saving measures like wearing a mask and sought to legislate discriminatory policies to ensure the supremacy of whiteness.
These are the robbers who have attacked the most vulnerable in our nation.
Then there are the bad neighbors like the priest and the Levite who are positioned and privileged to address the widespread pain yet look upon the damage caused and continue to live their lives unbothered by the suffering of others.
Biden has declared, “Americans have called on us to marshal the forces of decency and the forces of fairness.” However, in order to embrace the forces of decency and fairness, we must first deal with the forces of bigotry, white supremacy and economic oppression -- just to name a few.
Americans cannot afford to brush years of divisive language and self-interested policies under the rug; doing so would make us just like the bystanders in the parable. Americans must name those forces that have made our politics indecent and unfair, especially for those communities who have been marginalized.
To become better neighbors, we must address the conditions that have allowed Americans to embrace what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “the psychological work of Othering.” This destructive work of othering attributes innate inferiority to others to convince ourselves that there is some sort of delineation between “us” and “them.”
The robbers in the text are able to harm the man walking down the road because they see themselves as superior to him. Those who walk past the man in need are able to do so because they don’t see his plight as their own. It is this same mindset that has led generations of white Americans to enact, affirm and maintain policies that have caused harm to communities of color in America.
In “The Origin of Others,” Toni Morrison describes othering as finding our own value in our own enshrined difference. This delineation, which makes it easy to devalue others’ humanity and ignore others’ personal struggles, limits our ability to address the multiple ills plaguing our society.
Throughout this pandemic, the faith community that I have served has been on the front lines, providing meals and meeting the spiritual needs of those who are suffering. For almost a year, I have witnessed the pain families have felt as politicians have blocked further economic stimulus. I have seen the struggle of immigrant parents hesitant to receive support for fear of having to report their status.
Most of all, I have felt the heartache of families who have lost loved ones because of the politicization of public health measures aimed at saving lives.
These emotions have been worsened through the knowledge that there are robbers who have profited during the pandemic and societal priests and Levites who have not used their positions or privilege to enact any change.
If the new administration wants to heal this nation, it must restructure our moral economy and repay the debts of compassion and empathy before America forever becomes morally bankrupt.
If this nation wants to be a community of good Samaritans, it must make certain that we view difference not as a tool to oppress but as a quality that allows us to see the beauty in caring for those who have been afflicted. When we care for all, we produce a stronger society.
Any revival of the forces of decency must address the pathway that made it possible for Trumpism to invigorate hatred and discontent under the guise of upholding American values.
We must deliberately resist the ideals, views and opinions that cause us to see our neighbors as threats. We must deliberately resist the temptation to place self-interest before the needs of the community.
White America must acknowledge and repent from the blatant lie that people of color are a threat to this nation. In fact, history has demonstrated that despite people of color being enslaved, subjected to internment camps and even used as exploited labor, we have been the primary reason for the success of this nation.
While America is plagued by the habit of being bad neighbors, it has the potential to be a place where the robbers, priests and Levites can acknowledge the pain they have caused and work toward setting the groundwork for healing.
As we enter into a new presidential administration, Americans must dedicate ourselves to the ongoing work of recognizing our own bias, accepting the consequences of our harmful actions toward our neighbors, restoring relationships with one another and working toward honoring our shared humanity.
This is the difficult work that this nation is called to do if it will be a nation of good Samaritans.