I don’t know if Al Letson is a Christian. I don’t know if he is a person of faith of any stripe. I have no idea whether he finds motivation for his actions in any religious or spiritual tradition. I know virtually nothing about the guy beyond what I heard in an NPR interview a few days ago. All I know is that Al Letson is one of my newest heroes.
Letson is the host of “Reveal,” a podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting, and went to Berkeley, California, to cover the white nationalist rally planned for last Sunday. Berkeley, a stronghold of left-wing politics for decades, had already seen turmoil when neo-Nazi groups held a demonstration there back in April, so when this latest event was announced, thousands of protesters showed up to take a stand against white supremacy and hate-mongering. As it turns out, the right-wing groups were mostly a no-show, a development that the left-wingers celebrated.
Along with these mostly peaceful protesters were a group of about 150 militant anti-fascists, known as the antifa or black bloc. They came with bandanas, scarves, and masks covering their faces and marched in formation, shouting slogans and taunting the few right-wingers who had shown up. The white nationalists shouted back, things escalated, as they almost inevitably do, and before long violence erupted.
As he was covering these events, Letson saw one of the right-wing rally-goers fall to the ground and become surrounded by antifa members, who took to kicking and beating him. Letson sprang into action. He said, “When I glanced to my left I saw … a mass of people just coming off the lawn towards this guy, and … I thought they were going to kill him. And I just didn’t want anybody to die.” So Letson threw himself down on top of the man to protect him from the assault.
When asked why he, a black man, would risk his own safety to protect a white supremacist, Letson answered, “What came to me was that he was a human being, and I didn’t want to see anybody die.… You know, in retrospect, it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t see my humanity; what matters to me is that I see his. What he thinks about me and all of that, like—my humanity is not dependent upon that” (McEvers 2017).
Letson’s actions are a perfect illustration of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan. A member of a minority group that faced discrimination and bigotry from their Jewish counterparts (and often responded in kind), the Samaritan traveler found himself face-to-face with a dilemma for the ages. Should he risk his life to help this guy who might very well kick him or spit on him as he went by were the situation reversed, or should he just keep walking and leave the guy in the ditch to die? Two other travelers had already chosen the latter course of (in)action, so who could blame him if he did the same?
But he didn’t. As we know from long familiarity with the parable, the Samaritan went to the man, tended his wounds, took him to a inn, and paid the innkeeper to care for him, promising to follow up in a few days to pay for any of the innkeeper’s extra expenses. He didn’t have to do any of it, and if he had let his (quite plausible) assumption that the victim would not have recognized his humanity deter him from seeing the other’s humanity, he wouldn’t have done any of it. Instead, he chose to act with compassion toward him, one human being to another.
As I said before, I don’t really know anything about Al Letson, but what I infer from this interview is that his action to protect the man at the rally was not a spur-of-the-moment, impulsive action. It grew out of his orientation to life, as he explained to the interviewer:
Many years ago I was listening to [Fresh Air with] Terry Gross and Father Greg Boyle was on there, and he gave this quote that has just stuck with me ever since. He said, “I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found.” … So when I get into this situation where the decision is, do you be a journalist or do you be a human, I’m going to put the journalism to the side and do the thing that feels right for me.
Who knows how the man Letson protected responded to this unexpected gift of grace? Did it change his mind about the inherent superiority of his whiteness? Did it at least give him pause, and lead him to question the principles and assumptions that have guided his life to this point? Will he be a better person for having had this experience?
Unless he speaks up publicly, we have no way of learning the answers to these questions. But it doesn’t really matter. As Letson observed, how others see us should not determine how we see and treat them. All persons, even those we find vile and irredeemable, are made in the image and likeness of God, just as we are. Whether we like it or not, that is the truth.
So let us “live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found.”