Christians as Dangerously Empathic Good Samaritans

Is the idea of Christians becoming political radicals, a far-fetched one? To state my case from the outset: Whatever other differences may exist among Christians on some issues,…

Is the idea of Christians becoming political radicals, a far-fetched one? To state my case from the outset: Whatever other differences may exist among Christians on some issues, from my understanding of Jesus’s message, a better question might be how can they not become political radicals?  And I won’t mince words out of fear that some might take offense. The principles of our capitalist economic system and the irreducible core of Jesus’s teaching are irreconcilable.

If there’s a bedrock principle in the Gospels it’s found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. According to Luke 10: 24-37, Jesus told the parable as part of a Socratic dialogue with an expert in Jewish law. The lawyer  asks Jesus  how to attain eternal life, a question that Jesus turns on the lawyer, asking him, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer cites Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind but then adds “and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s it, replies Jesus. But then, the lawyer asks, desiring to justify himself and perhaps trip up Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer may have wanted Jesus to demarcate some specific boundaries, thus enabling him to ignore everyone outside of them. Rather than a direct answer, Jesus responds with the parable:

“A certain man” (probably Jewish)  is walking down the seventeen mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a treacherous area known locally as “The Bloody Pass” where bandits were known to prey on travelers. The man is severely beaten, robbed of his clothes, and left half dead by the side of the road. At this point, two highly regarded figures from the Jewish community come along. The first to arrive was a priest who “passed by to the other side of the road.” Soon, a Levite (a priest’s helper) comes along but he also continues “on the other side.”

Eventually, a stranger from Samaria stops by to help the robbery victim. Here it’s important to note the long standing enmity between Israelites and Samaritans, to the point where the two people had virtually no social contact. The Jews despised the Samaritans as apostates and the hatred was mutual. Undoubtedly, Jesus knew that his audience would find it incredible that a Samaritan would be the paragon of virtue in the parable.The Samaritan administers first aid to the victim, takes him to an inn, and remains with him overnight. He even gives the innkeeper two denari (roughly two days wages) for any bills incurred by the man and  even promises that on his return trip he’ll reimburse the innkeeper for any additional expenses.

At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three men behaved as the good neighbor to the victim. Probably squirming a bit and unable to utter the word “Samaritan,” the lawyer replied, “The man who had mercy on him.” And with that, Jesus tells the lawyer — and by extension, us —“Go and do likewise.” For many years, perhaps like most people who hear the parable, I took it as a “Jesus wants us to help others trope,” a feel good story that a decent person should follow the  Good Samaritan’s example and come to the aid of others, even at some personal risk.

It wasn’t until much later when reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s updating of the parable that I began to appreciate just how much Jesus was  a counter-culture revolutionary. I also began to recognize its present day applicability, especially when grounded in a wider socioeconomic context. Without invoking any supernatural dimension to the parable, we know there is overwhelming evidence  that (almost) all people have an innate capacity for empathy. And in the parable imparted by Jesus, the Samaritan didn’t act because of religious beliefs but was “moved by compassion.” Dr. King frequently preached about the Good Samaritan, invariably sourcing “Love They Neighbor” within a moral universalism and we know it’s the unifying moral principle in all the world’s great religions, including Christianity.

In our world, with all of its victims lying by the side of the road, the parable raises at least two additional lessons.  First, the Samaritan didn’t consult a checklist of prohibited victims like undocumented worker, those with different sexual orientations,  accent, skin color, political or religious affiliation, whether he was pro-life or a member of a marginalized community.

Second, and this directly relates to my purpose, King cautioned that while one-on-one empathy is commendable we can’t “overlook the circumstances which makes philanthropy necessary.” In other words, King is suggesting that the problem is as much the identity of the robbers and the treacherous journey taken by the injured man.  Yes, helping the injured roadside victim is laudatory but  Jesus also meant one’s neighbor means “any needy man on one of the numerous Jericho roads of life.” King is updating the parable to mean all victims of injustice and calling out modern day pillagers and plunderers here in the United States.

Jesus’s admonition of “Go and do likewise”  takes on new meaning because making the world more conducive to loving our neighbors requires one to practice what I’ve termed elsewhere “dangerous empathy.” Dangerous, because the wealthy elite in this country can’t allow questions about existing institutions of our society to gain purchase. And just as the powers of the time saw Jesus as a threat, those who own and control virtually everything that matters in our country will label anyone promoting dangerous empathy a radical subversive in an effort to stigmatize and discredit them.  However, the original definition of radical comes from the Latin radix, or root, as in someone speaking or writing about fundamental truths. This means going beyond addressing symptoms to identifying and doing something about the root causes of our neighbors’ suffering.

Finally, Christians not bereft of conscience must unapologetically assert that Jesus’s message is totally at odds with capitalist society’s dominant culture and its poisonous notion of individualism that excludes mutuality.  This does not mean hating corporate oligarchs  and their complicit enablers at the top of both political parties or wishing that physical harm is visited upon them. It does mean Christians becoming dangerous Good Samaritans, working to dismantle a thoroughly undemocratic system that values profits over humanity and replacing it with one that’s responsive to people’s needs. Acknowledging these truths might prove a cathartic, liberating and for many, even  a secular atonement experience. Can I get an “Amen?”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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