Sunday, 16 January 2011

Eternal Leson Of The Good Samaritan

"When a stranger dwells among you in your land, do not taunt him, The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him as yourself." Leviticus 19:34

The tragedy that unfolded last Saturday in Tucson Arizona was truly heartbreaking, however I found things began to get progressively worse as commentator after commentator attempted to put the blame for the atrocity on those of the political right, and specifically Sarah Palin. Prior to any evidence regarding the murderer or his motivation becoming known, these people sought to make political capital out of the suffering of those killed and injured, in a desperate bid to create ill feeling towards their political enemies and discredit them. That American politicians and pundits would stoop so low was bad enough, but that voice after voice on the BBC joined in such speculation with such relish was more than a little distasteful and made a mockery of its fabled (or should that be mythological) impartiality.

Subsequently we learned that in addition to US Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the victims of the shooting spree included a federal judge appointed by President Bush, an aide to Mrs Giffords and an 11 year old girl. It also became clear that the murderer's political views could hardly be called conventional or Tea Party, embracing as they do, aspects of far right and far left ideology which reveal little of his motivation. By all accounts he is a highly unstable individual, whose psychological problems were no doubt exacerbated by the large amounts of cannabis he was said to have smoked (something quite underplayed by the same BBC that invested so much time in speculating if Sarah Palin's rhetoric was influential in causing the shooting). Finally and thankfully however, President Obama gave a wonderful speech in which he tried to bring to an end the cynical abuse of the tragedy, by eloquently instructing his nation to come together to grieve and to pray for the victims and their families and warned them not to use the events as a reason to turn on one another. I add my own prayer for Gabrielle Giffords recovery to his.

During this week I have also been learning about the plight of Zimbabwean refugees. I was struck by the contrast between their reception in South Africa and that in Botswana. During 2008 at least 68 Zimbabwean immigrants were murdered, some in the most horrific ways imaginable, by enraged South African mobs who believed that the Zimbabweans were taking their jobs and causing a rise in crime, while in Botswana, despite the widely held belief that small increases in crime were also the result of increased immigration from Zimbabwe, the attitude of the majority of Batswana was to extend the hand of friendship and understanding to those fleeing Mugabe's wicked regime. Some took to the airways to inform their fellow citizens of the situation in Zimbabwe so that they could better understand the plight of those left with little choice but to cross the border. Many Zimbabweans have testified to the good and kind treatment they have received in Botswana.

What I came to realise is that both the political opportunism in the US and the welcome offered to strangers in Botswana both are opposite examples of the way tribalism can manifest in positive and negative forms.

It is a fact of human nature, that humanity will always self-divide into small groups. We cannot live as individuals completely removed from our fellow man and so form bonds of association with others, naturally we feel greater affinity and ease with people with whom we have more in common, or with those with whom we live in greater proximity and therefore share the same conditions of life as ourselves. This is also central to human identity, central to how we understand who we are and what role we have in life, after all the majority of us do enjoy having a label that identifies us however much we insist we don't, in reality we generally just don't like anyone other than ourselves labelling us. Sometimes that label might be a religious one at other times it might be political, sexual, national, geographical and among many the label of choice is dependent on a chosen sports team, its colours and symbols embraced passionately as marks of identity and pride. What's more we all have multiple identities encompassing those matters of central importance to our lives.

There is nothing wrong in any of this. Sharing a common identity and affinity with a larger group of people is important for a healthy life and for preserving culture and memory and ultimately it enriches our world and the cultural life of the broader human family.

So why has such "tribalism" so often led to conflict, hatred and sadly violence and murder? Why does pride in one's own group often lead to hatred of the other group? A simple answer that can go some way to explain this reality is that of the competition for resources. Sometimes groups of people clash over land which both sides believe to be theirs. Sometimes revenge for historical wrongs is the cause for the fires of hatred. Looking at many of the conflicts in today's world, one or more of these reasons could be used to provide a reasonable explanation, but there is something else, some concept that I think is fundamental to the mix, and that is arrogance.

As with individuals, group arrogance in my opinion, is often fuelled by deep-rooted self doubt and even low self-esteem. Just as an individual seeks to mitigate his feelings of inadequacy by striving to convince everybody just how great he is and by demeaning others to feel better in himself so too groups can attempt to demean the other. Just as the arrogant individual can not allow criticism, for at heart she/he is terrified that what is said might be true, and so strives to silence or discredit the critic, so too are the actions of many groups. I feel this is perhaps the primary cause of inter-religious conflict. At the heart of many a religious believer or community is the doubt that they might be wrong and that those others might be correct. Sarah Palin called the speculation about her and the Tea-Party movement a "blood libel". The actual Blood Libels that haunted the Jewish people down the ages are to my mind a clear example of the self-doubts of Christendom at that time. It was hard for many Christians to deal with the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, by the Jewish people. Jews as a community didn't and don't accept Jesus as the Messiah simply because they believe that he failed to achieve the necessary requirements of the Messianic role laid down in the Bible. They also can't accept the Trinitarian understandings of the nature of Jesus as it conflicts with the fundamentals of their faith, also laid down in the Bible. But the Christians of yesteryear could not accept this reality, as it spoke directly to their doubts regarding their doctrines and the support claimed for them in Holy Scripture. So instead they convinced themselves that Jews did actually accept the Messianic and/or divine nature of Christ, but rejected it due to their evil natures and wickedness. This led directly to the blood libels, as in these paranoid minds it was believed that Jews sought to receive the benefits of Christian salvation without embracing the Christian faith, by killing Christian children and consuming their blood, in some sort of horrific re-enactment of the crucifixion and last supper.

Sadly the same hateful and deluded outlook is present in parts of the Muslim world today, which in addition to actual blood-libels also believes that Jews in Israel plant Gharqad trees to protect themselves from the fulfilment of a Hadith that teaches that the time will come when even the trees will call the faithful to come and kill the Jews hiding behind them. This Hadith informs the reader that only the Gharqad tree will not divulge the Jews location. For such people it is inconceivable that others do not believe in their religion, so again they assume that everyone believes it but that some ignore the truth because of their wickedness. The assumption of conspiracies against one's faith by unbelievers is a symptom of self doubt, and often fuels the vanity which leads to attempts to impose one's faith on all others. Perhaps the naked attempt to discredit the Tea-Party movement by associating it with the atrocity in Arizona, is symptomatic of growing doubts in the minds of those critics of their own political position.

Our teacher and guide, taught us to go beyond these limited horizons, to reach out beyond the limits of our circle. Many people feel that to reach out to and associate with sinners would taint them. Aware of our own faults and sins we would rather forget them and would prefer others never to know of them, and so to be seen with sinners terrifies, instead we would rather condemn with passion the sinners as much as to say "see I am not like them" than from a genuine dislike of sin. Jesus was confident enough to go beyond this mental restriction and by so doing he taught us to do the same. However he was not some sort of universalist. On occasion he felt the need to tell his disciples to limit their mission to the people of his nation and refrain from association with those of other nations. But when people are in need, whoever they are, it is our duty to reach out. And to this end he taught us his Parable of the Good Samaritan:

"Teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?" "So he answered and said "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself" "And he said to him "You have answered rightly: do this and you will live" (Then the man asked) And who is my neighbour?" Then Jesus answered and said " A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him and departed leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite when he arrived at the place came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds pouring on oil and wine and he set him on his own animal brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day when he departed he took out two Denarii, gave them to the innkeeper and said to him, "Take care of him and whatever more you spend I will repay you." "So which of these three do you think was neighbour to him who fell among the thieves?" And he said "He who showed mercy on him" Then Jesus said to him "Go and do likewise" Luke 10:25-37.

Samaritans and Jews were not the best of neighbours. Both viewed themselves as the true People of Israel and while there were and are many similarities between the two peoples, the differences were regarded as intolerable by the other. Jews were angered by Samaritan attempts to thwart Jewish observances, and attempts on the sanctity of the Jerusalem Temple. They were unhappy that large regions of their land had become no-go areas leading Jewish pilgrims from Galilee to take circuitous routes on their journey to Jerusalem to avoid Samaritan territory. Samaritans nurtured hatred for Jews mainly for the Jewish role in the destruction of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim. Into this hostile theatre, Jesus placed his most memorable parable. The Samaritan of the parable had every reason to turn away from helping his Jewish enemy. He could so easily have argued "I didn't harm him, and if I were in a similar position he would not help me. There are more than enough of my own people in need of help and so I am not going to waste my time on helping him. Let his fellow Jews help him". That certainly might have been the argument presented to him by his fellow Samaritans had he consulted them for their opinion. But he did not conclude that. He realised that this injured and desperate person was a fellow human being, and as such he transcended the borders of faith, nation and tribe. Jesus taught that this Samaritan was the definition of neighbour. Now the way that Luke has recorded this parable implies that we are to consider as a neighbour, only those that help us! Clearly this is not the case, and it flatly contradicts Jesus' teaching:

"For if you only love those who love you what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" Matthew 5:46

What he clearly was saying is that the only one who regarded the injured man as a neighbour and behaved in a neighbourly way was the Samaritan. In other words, who is your neighbour? Anyone and everyone especially those who need your help.

The people of Botswana embodied this teaching regarding their treatment of their neighbours from Zimbabwe. The people who tried to pin the blame for the murders in Arizona, on their political enemies sadly did not.

I end with a true story of human kindness transcending divides, that the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks records in his book "To Heal a Fractured World". In 1966 an 11 year old African American boy Stephen Carter, moved with his family to a white neighbourhood of Washington DC. It became obvious very quickly that the inhabitants of that neighbourhood wished not to confer any welcome or recognition on the black family. Passers-by would look at the family sitting on the porch of their home, but would not say anything and would not greet them. The family had an overwhelming sense of not being welcome. Then one day a white woman, Sara Kestenbaum, came over to their home with trays laden with drinks and sandwiches and greeted them with a broad smile. At that moment they were made to feel completely welcome, and they never forgot the actions of that woman, bravely breaching the walls of division to reach out to her neighbours in need.

There are many strangers around us, perhaps this week we can each reach out to one of them and extend the borders of our own lives.

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