I took my two-year-old daughter with me to Walmart on a simple errand. We bought what we needed, and made our way back through the parking lot toward our car. As I reached for my keys to unlock the doors of our green Subaru, a man stopped us.
“Can you give me a jump?”
Jumping a car battery is an easy thing, an innocuous thing when taken by itself. You don’t have to know engines. You don’t have to pay money. All you have to give up is two or three minutes of your time, assuming that a jump is all the ailing car really needs.
So why the foreboding?
No, we didn’t know the man. And no, we’re not in a small town. And no, he wasn’t wearing nice clothes, and he didn’t have a fish symbol on his car. And yes, people get mugged by strangers faking car trouble. As a protective father, all of these things flashed through my awareness, but so did the fact that it was broad daylight, that there were lots of other people walking to and from their cars, and that I was bigger than he was. But these thoughts weren’t really thoughts at all. They were workings of instinct and subconscious, ideas that had no time to truly effect my decision-making processes in the fraction of a second between him asking for help and me saying “Yeah, of course. Let me put my daughter in the car, and I’ll be right there.”
I pulled up to his car and got out, and as the man untangled his cables, he said to me something astonishing, but sadly not surprising at all: “I’ve asked, like, six other people, and you’re the first one who said yes.”
Six. Surely not all of them were late for work or on their way to the emergency room. We were at a suburban Walmart, not a corner of downtown Portland. Most of them, probably all of them, said “no” as a reflex, a sort of armor built up by subconscious fear. It may also have been indifference, or contempt, or any number of grosser sins, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. Either way, and regardless of creed, they were all priests and levities of the modern age, turning a blind eye to the wounded man on the road.
Would I have denied Christ if I had said no to the man? Whether the man knew Christ or not, he asked for me to be his neighbor as Christ commands, even at my own peril, and at the peril of my child sitting oblivious in her car seat.
There are places in the world today where Christians are still rounded up and slaughtered for their faith. America is not one of those places. Persecution is a relative thing, and here, so far, large-scale persecution is a battle for the mind, not the body. There is no magisterial lions’ den. But there are people stranded on the side of the road, some with good intentions, some without.
Perhaps helping strangers is the new American lions’ den. Praise God it’s something so relatively easy to face. And at the same time, God help us, because we, more than any other culture in the world, are followers of Jean-Paul Sartre, who put the modern Western psyche into a nutshell: “Hell is other people.”