“I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us.” That’s how the film Platoon, a commentary on U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, ends in the words of protagonist Chris Taylor (played by Charlie Sheen). The words seem appropriate today as I read that little Wang Yue, the two-year-old injured in two horrible hit-and-runs in China has died.
I chose not to watch security camera footage posted on the web, but I read the articles that described the events it captured. Last week little Wang Yue wandered unnoticed by her parents into the street and was hit by a van. After knocking the girl down, the driver of the van stopped and then proceeded to drive over her body with the back wheels of his car. A second vehicle, this time a small truck, ran over the little girl without slowing. Ten minutes passed during which persons walked, cycled and drove around the child as she lay in a puddle of blood on the street. It was a woman scavenging garbage nearby who set down her sacks and pulled the little body off the street to get help.
Unthinkable, horrible, tragic and enraging, the incident caused public outrage. In an online “Stop Apathy” campaign, persons around the globe vented their disgust at the dozen-plus derelict individuals who completely ignored the injured and helpless little toddler. It would be easy join the outcry except that I know the quote at the end of Platoon is true: the enemy is within us. We are the derelict. We are the apathetic.
Most of the public voices reveal a self-righteous anger, the kind that is quick to say, “I would never do such a thing,” or “If I had been there, I would have stopped and helped.” It is as though our anger and outrage defends us against a more insidious truth, that at the core we are just as despicable as the ones who did nothing. We don’t want to believe that we could do what those people did. We don’t want to believe that we are just as indifferent and apathetic. And yet, we are proved that way over and over again. In just one example, when a hidden camera was set up at a busy street corner in one U.S. city and a small child actor placed at the corner, the camera recorded dozens of people passing her by. One woman, at last, stopped to find out why this young child was left alone in the middle of the city. It takes a cursory look at the day’s news to face the reality that our condition is despicable even though we want to believe otherwise.
Christ challenges our assumption that we are good, that given the opportunity, we would stop and help the one in need. Jesus told a story. A man on a journey is accosted and beaten by thugs, left to die on the side of the road. The pious, the “good” folks of the world pass him by, like the dozen-plus in China passed by little Wang Yue. I’m sure they had their reasons. “I didn’t see her.” “I figured her family would be coming to help her.” “I didn’t know she was hurt that badly.” “I thought it was a bloody blanket.” “I wouldn’t have been able to help. I figured surely someone was already getting help.” Who knows what the excuses are, but somehow they reasoned out justifications in their minds and passed by. And I’m sure they all regret that now. My guess is they are mostly “decent” people leading mostly “decent” lives. But in the end, the majority of people pass by. Only one stops. And the one who stops isn’t the “good” or “pious” of our society, but the nobody, the cast off. In China, it was a scavenger, a woman who collects scraps from the garbage. In Jesus’ convicting story, it’s a Samaritan, one who is despised and of no repute.
And the compassion of those we disregard as nothing shames us all. We are exposed for who we really are, derelicts indeed. It is in our fallen nature to look out for our own interests over the interests of others. We shout out our disgust at these twelve passersby and two drivers, but it is at ourselves too. As we cry for justice, we know deep down inside we betray our own indifference. And we are filled with shame because our record proves we are not the good Samaritans we’d like to think we are.
My husband shared an interesting image with me. In the musical The Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland, the munchkins gather around the body of the wicked witch singing, “Ding-dong, the witch is dead.” He was ruminating on the recent celebration over the death of Muammar Gaddafi (similar to celebrations over the death of Osama bin Laden) and likening it to this scene in The Wizard of Oz. Except that, in his tweaked version, the munchkins are witches. They sing gleefully at the death of the sinister and evil witch totally unaware that they themselves are also witches. I like his version. It seems closer to the truth.
We want to be the good Samaritan, but on our own we fall desperately short. Stories like Wang Yue’s remind us every day that we are not what we hoped we are. We’re attracted to heroes because we know that heroic acts of love and compassion, of forgiveness and restoration don’t come naturally. We know that, if left to our own devices, our tendency is to walk by on the other side of the road. But if we deny the evil inside of us, the enemy within, we may deceive ourselves but not God. We are still in desperate straits.
We need a tonic. We need good news. And oh sweet, intoxicating Gospel: it is just that. Jesus is our Good Samaritan, entering our tragedy and healing our brokenness with a balm for the derelict and despicable. Where we are unable to make ourselves the good Samaritans we aspire to be, he is able. He can turn us from passerby to an agent of compassion. But we can’t come to him with the notion that we have anything to offer, that we’re better than a passersby in China who abandoned a little girl in her need. We have to come with hands empty of our own credit. We have to see ourselves as the derelicts we are. We have to identify with the driver of that van or that truck, with the man who walked by the bleeding toddler because we are no different, no better. It could have been us walking by. It was us walking by. Do we have the courage to believe it? Or are we hanging onto a self deception and refusing the cure?
May our shared shame lead us to a sweet Gospel: Jesus loves the derelict. He became the derelict on the cross, bearing our shame for us. In him, there is no more shame, no more condemnation for the evil within. He loves the passersby. There is no bottom to his forgiveness, no end to the flow of his love for the humble and contrite. Little Wang Yue is no farther from his grace and love than are we. Praise be to God. May a little child lead us to Jesus. Because we need him. Each and every one of us.