This is my column in today’s Greenville News.
Acts of Altruism and Goodness Transcend our Divisions.
We all love a good story because its lessons endure; it penetrates into our hearts and minds. For example, you can sit and tell your child why love matters, about how night-time is bed-time and that he should close his eyes and to go to sleep. But you’ll make your point more clearly if you hold your child while you read ‘Goodnight Moon,’ by Marjorie Wise Brown. ‘Goodnight moon, goodnight air, goodnight noises everywhere,’ is pure sleepy-time poetry. You can also discuss the dangers of jealousy till your eyes turn green, but a reading of Othello really speaks volumes.
We have innumerable laws to stop violence, hatred and discrimination. We condemn hateful speech and teach kids about fairness and equality by using the jargon of politics and law. We try to explain the value of altruism by framing it in evolutionary terms. But a story does the job. And what better story to teach us love than Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan?
It’s a tale set in ancient times about a man who is beaten, stripped, robbed and left for dead on a lonely highway between Jerusalem and Jericho, and about the unlikely man who stops to help. But it requires some context. The road the two were traveling was known to be dangerous, a place for robbers. Stopping to assist a half-dead stranger was not what our moms would call ‘a good decision.’ It was, in modern terms and ancient, a little crazy. The two main characters, one a Samaritan and one a Jew, came from common ancestors. However they came from cultures that had great animosity towards one another, based on historical events.
If you don’t know the rest of the story, it’s like this: after two influential religious men walk by and ignore the wounded fellow, the Samaritan stops to help him, puts his bloody, bruised form on a donkey, takes him to an inn and pays the inn-keeper to take care of the stranger. Then he promises more payment later if the costs exceed the money he leaves. Jesus asked his listeners, ‘which of them do you think was a neighbor to this man?’
This is a parable that we can adapt for our times with relative ease. But it requires us to think differently, and especially to think differently about those we dislike, or even hate. For instance, what if the the event happened in ‘the bad part of town,’ or at 3 am on a busy highway? What if the wounded man was a known member of Westboro Baptist Church? And what if the man who finally stopped was a soldier, a groups roundly condemned by the odd folks of Westboro?
What if the wounded man was a wildly popular atheist author and two preachers walked by. What if only an elderly Sunday School teacher had the courage to stop?
What if three liberal college students stopped to look at the wounded man, who was an influential conservative talk radio host? What if they wanted to help, individually, but each was too committed to their views to risk acting with kindness in plain view of the others?
What if the wounded man was a wealthy industrialist, and he was passed by a news reporter who hated him, but a Communist stopped to help? What if a Jew stopped for a Muslim? What if a Muslim stopped for a Jew? What if two politicians walked by but a homeless man stopped and draped his only coat over the victim? Here’s ‘what if.’ They would become, in Jesus’ words, neighbors. Sometimes we believe that we cannot love our enemies. This is because we think feelings must precede actions. But it’s quite the opposite. The Good Samaritan may not have felt love for the man he helped. But he acted in love, because it was right. If we do this sort of thing enough, we see what he saw; the scars and vulnerability of even our most bitter opponents. If we do it enough, we will pay a price, in criticism, in danger, in money or health. And if we do it enough, we may see that we are as likely to be the wounded man, or the careless passerby, as we are to be the Samaritan ‘hero’ we’d like to be.
The story tells us the truth. Our actions, our acts of altruism, kindness, mercy and goodness, are the essence of love and transcend divisions. And that’s how enemies become neighbors in God’s eyes.