One of my earliest memories is of a tornado roaring through my neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was less than four years old, but I vividly remember sitting in the linen closet cradling my infant brother, as I heard the enormous roar of wind and listened to the trees in our yard be torn from the ground like giant toothpicks and tossed on top of our house. The house was damaged, but remained intact, and we were uninjured. But only our neighbors at the end of the street had a working phone after the storm. So they went out into the devastation and invited other neighbors, including my mom, to come in and use the phone to let people know we were okay.
Well, that's what neighbors do, right? Hopefully, yes. But there's always the question of who our neighbors really are. People tend to forget that it was that question that prompted Jesus to tell one of his most famous stories, "The Parable of the Good Samaritan" (Luke 10:25-37). A lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to receive eternal life. Jesus asks him what the law says about it. The lawyer cites two commandments, including "love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says he's got it right. But then the lawyer wants legal clarification: "and who is my neighbor?" he asks. He wants to know exactly whom he has to love as himself and, presumably, whom he does not.
Most people tend to forget the question that prompted it, but even people with no religious background can usually tell you the basics of Jesus' response, the Good Samaritan story. "So, this guy got mugged and left for dead on the side of the road. Then two local religious leaders passed by on the other side of the road without stopping to help him. But then a Samaritan stopped, which you wouldn't have expected, since he wasn't even from around there and most people in that area hated Samaritans. And not only that, he bandaged him, took him to an inn, and told them to take care of the guy and the Samaritan would pay the bill."
At the end of story, Jesus looks at the lawyer and asks, "which of the three people on the road was a neighbor to the one who was attacked?" The lawyer sheepishly mumbles, "the one who showed mercy." And Jesus says, "go and do likewise." You asked the wrong question, Jesus is saying. It's not about who your neighbor is; it's about whether you will be a neighbor to others by showing mercy.
Well, according to the Alabama State Legislature, both Jesus and the Good Samaritan got it wrong: the Samaritan should have checked the ID of the guy in the road before helping him, because if the guy in the road was an undocumented resident, the Samaritan should have passed by on the other side, too. The new immigration law that they have passed makes it a crime to be a neighbor to undocumented residents by showing them mercy through transporting them, harboring them, or aiding them. According to that law, if the man in the road was undocumented and the Good Samaritan helped him, the Samaritan should have been arrested for transporting an undocumented resident from the road to the inn, harboring him at the inn, and providing him aid through medicine, food and shelter. Given Jesus' commandment to "go and do likewise" about the Good Samaritan, it effectively makes it a crime to be a practicing Christian (or of other faiths with similar religious requirements) in Alabama.
Thankfully, several prominent Alabama church leaders have brought a suit against the "nation's most merciless anti-immigration legislation" for just this reason. And there is news that a judge has issued a preliminary injunction blocking the most sweeping "anti-mercy" prohibitions of the law, including those that most obviously affect religious practices of compassion and care. However, that judge also upheld the rest of the legislation, which includes a range of odious definitions of who we don't have to treat as our neighbor and how we can treat them instead. And, even worse, the governor has stated that he believed the injunction will be overturned, and if it is not, he will appeal any ruling that does not uphold the entire bill.
So, during this time of legal wrangling and debate, there is still time to have a bigger moral conversation about what the right questions really are. The governor and the state legislature are focused on the lawyer's question from Scripture: "who is my neighbor?" Who do we have to treat as our neighbors, and who do we not? But I think the people of Alabama (and the rest of the country) can and must ask a different question and provide a different answer.
I believe they can and will. I believe that because when that tornado came through my neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, my neighbors down the street did not ask, "Who are our neighbors? Who is close enough to us to deserve our help, and who can we turn away?" They didn't ask to see my mom's ID. They just asked whether she wanted to use the phone to assure my father that his wife and two young children hadn't just been killed. I haven't seen or heard from them in 35 years; we moved out of state within a year of that tornado. But 35 years later, they still help define for me what it means to be a neighbor, to show mercy, to others.
And that family is much on my mind these days. Because, you see, they were the first Latino family I ever knew. I was only four years old, so I have no idea if they were documented or not, if they were immigrants or had been in this country for generations. But I know they were good neighbors, and it grieves me to think if they are still in Alabama, the state might question that any time they drive down the street, enroll their kids in school, or show up at the hospital, just because of what they look like. But there is no question in my mind about whether they are good neighbors; the only question is whether we will go and do likewise.
Follow Rev. J.C. Austin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jcaustinnyc