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25 December 2017updated 26 Dec 2017 9:47am

The Good Samaritan: how politics transformed the meaning of a biblical story

The former Archbishop reviews The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable by Nick Spencer.

By Rowan Williams

After the gunman had slaughtered his victims at the church in Sutherland Springs in Texas, he was himself shot by an armed member of the public determined to prevent his escape. The multiple horrors of the event don’t need rehearsing here; but one startling moment came when a local commentator described this intervention as the action of a “Good Samaritan”. It brings into sharp focus the subject of this brief but thoroughly researched and thoughtful book. Nick Spencer sets out to examine not only the specific question of how the story of the Good Samaritan has been used by left and right alike as a convenient form of moral shorthand (though for rather different ends), but also the wider issues of why and how we reach for certain kinds of religiously charged symbolic language even in a pervasively secular culture – and how far this has the effect of distorting the central challenges of that language.

As Spencer explains, our modern problem with the story is that the very word “Samaritan” now has a positive aura: Samaritans are Helpful People; in particular, they are the people at the end of a telephone line if you are suffering from suicidal unhappiness. But, as most regular readers of the Bible are aware, relations between Jews and Samaritans at the time when the story of the Good Samaritan was first told were as poisonous as those between Serbs and Bosnians in the 1990s.

Any story with a Samaritan as a positive character would have been offensive; this one is made still more so by its very structure. An injured man at the roadside is ignored first by a priest and then by a “Levite” (a hereditary religious functionary in the Jerusalem Temple): the natural expectation would be that the hero of the story would be an ordinary Israelite, a salt-of-the-earth person just like the average listener to the story. Instead of which it turns out to be a racially and religiously obnoxious figure. And, as interpreters have often insisted, one of the many points of the tale is not that “we” should be kind to “them”, but that we, the insiders, the elect, the normal, should be ready to recognise that we are likely to have to depend in important ways on the apparently alien and threatening stranger.

One of the many points: Spencer mischievously declares that “several thousand words of careful, historically, socially and culturally contextualised exegesis on, we can be confident what the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about”, and then proceeds to set out a series of “clear” but significantly diverse messages which the story has been made to carry, in ancient and modern times. It’s about ethnic prejudice; or religious conflict; or the conflict between law-keeping and spontaneous ethical behaviour; or about the transcending of Israel’s historic significance as uniquely the people of God; or the need for ethical creativity; or the imperative to stop asking who is the neighbour to whom you have a duty and start behaving as a neighbour to anyone and everyone you encounter. And so on; and just to complicate matters further, theologians of the early and medieval Church provided a range of allegorical explanations on top of everything, with the Samaritan as Christ, and the Samaritan’s two coins for the injured man’s support at the inn as the two primary sacraments administered in the Church.

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One thing that emerges from this bewildering range of interpretation is that it isn’t just a story telling us to be nice rather than nasty to people in need, or even a story encouraging us not to “pass by on the other side” (Spencer notes just how pervasive this phrase still is in public debates about moral issues). It is after all a story told by a singularly cunning and surprising storyteller, who regularly leaves his listeners with a lot of difficult questions about who they are supposed to identify with.

As the story is framed in the Bible, it is Jesus’s response to a question from a legal expert: granted that I should love my neighbour, where does that obligation start and stop? “Charity begins at home”, surely; I cannot have the same sort of obligation to a single mother in South Sudan as I have to my sister-in-law, or even to the local food bank. And what Jesus’s story does is to refuse to offer any simple criteria for generalising about where love stops (just as elsewhere he refuses to offer criteria for when it’s all right to stop trying to forgive or to be reconciled). He directs his listeners’ attention to two things – what may get in the way of love, or give us an excuse for avoiding it; and our need to think about where and who we expect to receive love from, as well as how we are supposed to exercise it.

The challenge is to recognise that any number of perfectly “good” reasons can usually be found for not doing what we should (the religious professionals in the story would have had sound reasons for avoiding not only practical risks but also ceremonial pollution if the injured man had proved to be dead); and also to recognise that we are repeatedly humbled by learning what love looks like from profoundly unlikely sources. “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus. Be honest about the excuses you want to make, and get over it; be ready to recognise and imitate the reactions of people you normally ignore or despise.

It is hardly surprising that, as the context of the parable becomes less well known, it is co-opted in various ways that make it just a bit banal. Calling someone a Good Samaritan becomes, says Spencer, “a pithier way of saying “people who make significant efforts to help those they don’t know”. He lists a remarkable number of uses of the phraseology in debates in and out of parliament in recent decades, where the Samaritan has been invoked to bless varieties of humanitarian relief for Christians in the Middle East, as well as refugees, the homeless, and even the National Health Service.

And the House of Commons has heard some rather more eyebrow-raising applications – an exhortation from Peter Bone MP to the UK to work harder to reform the EU, Hilary Benn’s much-celebrated speech urging military intervention in Syria (“the Good Samaritan played by Charles Bronson”, as David Mitchell commented). Alongside all this, the Samaritan has been invoked as the patron saint of private rather than public welfare provision; and – unforgettably – by Margaret Thatcher addressing the Church of Scotland on the importance of the wealth creation that enabled the Samaritan to have resources to help the less fortunate. 

In the face of all these varied deployments, summarised with edge and wit, Spencer wisely does not try to insist on any new “canonical” reading of the parable. His aim, it seems, is mostly to alert us to the fact that what looks like an easily available trope is actually a good deal more dangerous, liable to turn from a useful stick with which to beat your rhetorical enemies into a splinter that sticks in your own flesh; very much the way in which Jesus’s parables regularly work.

This is helpful – though I found the idea that the parable itself was like the wounded man in the story waiting for a Samaritan to come and provide healing (“a half-dead metaphor, lying on the edge of our linguistic highway”) a bit forced in its ingenuity. But perhaps the most interesting general point to emerge is about the language of public moral discourse. The persistence of the Good Samaritan in this discourse suggests that our culture, for all its secularity, is not comfortable with an ethic that is completely rationalist in its rhetoric; we use language that carries echoes of the sacred, however confused and semi-audible those echoes are.

This in itself settles nothing about the truth of claims concerning the sacred, and it doesn’t mean that the UK and its parliament are full of “anonymous Christians” after all. But it leaves two challenges on the table. One is to do with the recognition that civic coherence and ethical clarity in a culture, even a publicly agnostic culture, continue to draw on the language and (in the broad sense) myth of older identities, and on the experience of communities for whom these words and narratives are still alive. Good citizenship depends on the fact that people are not just rational civic intellects, but live out of a moral hinterland that is shaped by very diverse imprints and affiliations.

The second issue is to do with what it is about our most passionately held moral commitments that makes us want to cast them in these residually sacral terms – and whether such passion can ultimately survive the dissolution of the sacred. Spencer’s deceptively slight essay skilfully nudges us towards some very substantial discussions.

The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable
Nick Spencer
Bloomsbury Continuum, 208pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special