Who Is Your Neighbor?

Sharing with a stranger–one of the better angels of our nature–is on display in this YouTube:

__________

The video is moving, but why is it moving? Why don’t we have similar responses, say, to adult alcoholics who are homeless, cold, and on the streets?

Obviously, because the alcoholic suffers justly (or so we imagine) while the coatless child suffers unjustly. In the child’s case, in helping we right a wrong; in the alcoholic’s case, in helping we enable a wrong.

Our response, in other words, pivots on:

  • our moral sense of right and wrong;
  • our moral sense of what is just and unjust; and
  • our belief or disbelief in free will. (If we don’t believe in free will, we might respond to the alcoholic in the same way that we respond to the child.)

In any case, the moral sense and what we believe about free will are necessary conditions to our response. Other factors at work:

  • Race, religion, nationality, and gender might shift the balance for some (our sense of who is in the circle of our moral concern and who is not). One person, for example, might be more inclined to help a girl over a boy; another might be inclined to help a Polish child wearing a cross, but not a Pakistani woman wearing a burka.
  • Psychopathy. If we have a chronic disconnect between our thoughts and emotions; if we can see a wrong, but feel nothing in response to it, we might not help.
  • Priority. The hierarchy of our concerns may dictate that we not help. We may, for example, be rushing to work, which is crucial to the sustenance of our own family. We may calculate that to help jeopardizes our own ability to support ourselves.

Our response, in short, is contextual, which makes this famous passage in Luke’s gospel–the story of the Good Samaritan–quite the provocation (Luke 10:25-37 KJV):

25 And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

26 He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.

28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

29 But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?

30 And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?

37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.

This story manipulates us on many levels. For example, the fact that the story is about a victim of crime and not a freeloader predisposes us to go with Jesus’s conclusion. But stripped of the way the story seduces us, here’s the bottom line: Luke’s Jesus is calling on people to abandon their calculating reason–the reasoning that makes distinctions and justifications for not helping–and to help; to help by virtue of the fact that the person is human, and to help without reserve. It’s a hard saying to digest, even with the bits of sugar that it contains.

But what would the world be like if everybody gave to one another maximally? What would it be like if, at the perception of need, suffering, or hatred, we were immediately and wholly present with love, vulnerability, courage, and determination? Luke’s gospel tells us: the kingdom of God would come to earth (Luke 17:20-21 KJV):

20 And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:

21 Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

In other words, if you go first, without limit, the kingdom of God has come to earth. This is Gandhi’s ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (truth force).

So here’s the radical message–and why there are so very few actual followers of Jesus and Gandhi: Be love now. Love. Everybody. Do good to others maximally–even those who hate you. Encounter need, suffering, and hatred with love.

And stop erecting hate on others. Find something to value in your neighbor, the stranger, and your enemy–and move towards that. There’s a chance it will start a cascade of reciprocation. Peace begins with you. Somebody has to go first. You go first. You’re on first.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Who Is Your Neighbor?

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Santi, this is a wonderful post. It is also a frightening post because it demands so much from us and, if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise how far we are from attaining this goal. As you said, if we live according to this the Kingdom of God is present, here with us.

    We are required to include all within our circles of compassion.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      This is where the mystic links up being with love, I suppose. The mystic sees in being itself a stunning wonder. She experiences being as present now, not merely as an object of utility for some future and pragmatic use. She notices it for its sheer existence, and the aporia (impasse) it brings one to in terms of really understanding it.

      Likewise love. To connect the mystery of being and love in the RANGE OF THE MOMENT is to “be love now.”

      It would be as hard to live in that space as it is for the psychedelic mushroom taker, the meditator, or the mystic to be in that space with the ontological mystery–the mystery of being–all the time. You can’t always fly. You can’t always be that high–unless, of course, you are a god or saint with extraordinary discipline.

      So maybe for normal people this is like simple breathing meditation. Can you spend 15 minutes a day being in meditation, getting in contact with the present, with the mystery of being itself? If so, can you also, for fifteen minutes, practice range of the moment love while you’re out in the world? What would it be like just to be like this for even 15 minutes a day? To try to be the peacemaker in whatever way that occurs to you in the moment? Hmm.

      One thing I like about Jesus’s parable is that the good Samaritan is first in the range of the moment–he is “love now”–and then his calculating side kicks in: how am I going to help this guy over the next week while he recovers? He takes him to an inn, arranges for his inn bill, and then goes on with the chores of his life with the intent of coming back a week later and paying the bill. His engagement is in the present and without limit, but he is also reasoning about it and recognizing that he has to get back to the inertia of his own life as well.

      In other words, he’s not just in the range of the moment, but also reasoning about the future. I don’t know if this weakens the story’s radical nature or strengthens it at some level.

      • Peter Smith says:

        Santi,
        This is where the mystic links up being with love, I suppose. The mystic sees in being itself a stunning wonder.

        I have always had problems with ‘mystical’ language of this kind. What does it really mean? To anyone with a background in analytical philosophy the statement is difficult to parse. Analytical philosophy is a third person view of the world while, as David Chalmers explains, Eastern philosophy is an interior, first person examination of consciousness. Because this interior examination lacks an external referent, practitioners are forced to use words and terms that are more suggestive than accurate and descriptive, language that is strange to analytical philosophy.

        Here is how I explain it to myself. God shares our consciousness but we are unaware of it because our free will, or our ‘ego’, is paramount. God is always present in our mind but unseen and unheard. Free will is our most important gift from God(why is another discussion) and the exercise of our free will requires that God remain invisible and unheard.

        The purpose of meditational and devotional exercises is to temporarily disable our free will, our ‘ego’, giving us the space and opportunity to, in an interior way, to choose to perceive and listen to God. This can be very difficult as our free will, our ‘ego’, and the attendant distractions are powerful barriers. This is where I think Zen Buddhism has got it exactly right. One path is to meditate in such a way as to become empty and in that we obtain ‘enlightenment’. Except that I define ‘enlightenment’ as meaning to become aware of God and to hear his voice. The awareness of God can take many forms, as described in the meditational and devotional literature(to quote you, ‘links up being with love … sees in being itself a stunning wonder‘). Hearing God’s voice is not a literal, sensory thing because God is present only in our consciousness. His voice is manifested in the way that God shapes our thoughts and our awareness(when we invite him and allow him to do so).

        One thing I like about Jesus’s parable is that the good Samaritan is first in the range of the moment–he is “love now”
        Feel, Act, Consolidate

  2. Peter Smith says:

    There is another way of understanding this, and that is by thinking of it from the point of view of God. I agree with David Chalmers, when he talks about the hard problem of consciousness, that consciousness must be a fundamental property of nature.

    If one also believes in God, one is led to the conclusion that it is God’s consciousness that permeates the Universe and wherever it intersects suitable brain cells it induces consciousness in the brain cells(thus solving the hard problem of consciousness). This consciousness has two special properties:
    1) the scope of the organism’s consciousness is limited by phenomenology. In other words it is limited by the sensory inputs of the organism, meaning it cannot experience another organism’s consciousness, even though they share the same field of consciousness, God’s consciousness.
    2) God, however, can experience the consciousness of all other organisms, giving God instant and direct awareness of the experiences of all other organisms.

    God is not only the omniscient observer, God experiences his creation through the life forms in the Universe. Think of the difference between knowing every possible scientific detail about ice cream and actually tasting it. Knowledge can never substitute for experience.

    This immediately changes how we perceive moral and compassionate behaviour. That is because God is experiencing the experience of every other person. My acts of love and kindness to another person are directly experienced by God as acts of love and kindness. My act of cruelty to another person is experienced by God as an act of cruelty. The wrong I commit is an injury to a person but it is also an injury to God, because God has directly experienced that injury through the person. Every moral act directly impinges on God because God directly experiences that act. When I look into the eyes of another person I am also looking into the eyes of God.

    It is this fact that makes morality absolute and not relative or consequential. Unethical acts are unethical because they are an injury to a person, they are sin because they are an injury to God, who also experienced that act.

    The relevance of all this is that experiencing love is the greatest good and joy we can experience. By loving each other we are also loving God because God then experiences the greatest good and joy that we can experience. Since God shares in the experience of all people, he desires that they all experience the great joy and good of love. Hence the command to love one another.

    There is a further consequence to this line of thinking. My dogs are also conscious hence God shares their consciousness as well. My acts of love to my dogs are acts of love to God and any unkind act to my dogs is also an unkind act to God.

  3. conservative and free Christian says:

    The parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible is very well-known, even among those who resent Christ and distrust the Scriptures.🙂

    You make some interesting observations about it, santi.

    I would agree that God calls us to be merciful and to show love and compassion like the Samaritan in the parable. I don’t think the parable “manipulates” us in any way. It’s true that Jesus used an extreme example of a man who was robbed and hurt, but he did that for a reason. There’s one thing you haven’t observed in this parable. In its historical and cultural context, there’s something that stands out and the Lord was getting at it, when he told the parable. The man who helps his neighbor, is Samaritan. His neighbor or the man who was hurt and in need of help, is Jewish. Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other. Jews looked down on Samaritans and didn’t expect any help from them. Now, even Jesus Christ told the Samaritan woman at the well that some aspects of their religion were wrong, “You worship that which you don’t know” (John 4:22, 23, 24). But that doesn’t mean Jews were justified in hating them. They were confused about what they believed in, they had the wrong perception of God as many religions still do today, but the Samaritans were still God’s creatures and God cared about them. Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman and going into a Samaritan village, something that Jews wouldn’t usually do, proves that God cared about them.

    The reason Christ told a parable in which the positive character was a Samaritan, was to challenge Jews in their attitude toward Samaritans. He wanted them to realize that some Samaritans were decent people who would help them and be kind to them. Jews didn’t have to agree with them on theology, but at least they could see in Samaritans, people who were not automatically their enemies. Ironically, the two other people in the parable, who passed by the man fallen by the road, were Jews. They were religious Jews, and didn’t help him.

    One of your conclusions about the parable is that if we all did that, the kingdom of God would come to this world. Actually, the kingdom of God has already come. It’s in the lives of those who believe and really follow Jesus Christ, and who practice what they preach, if they live according to God’s teachings. If you noticed, I didn’t say those who believe in God. Many believe in God and go to some place of worship, they go to mosque, church or synagogue, but they don’t really understand God and they don’t really follow God. I said the kingdom of God is in the lives of those who really follow Jesus Christ, and by following him, they understand and follow God. By the way, you can’t really understand or comprehend God without Jesus. The kingdom of God is here, but to a limited extent, more on that later.

    Let’s talk about another aspect of the parable now. The unconditional love of God. Is God’s love unconditional and is that what the parable is teaching? Yes and No.

    On the one hand, God loves us unconditionally, even when we spit in his face. We spat in his face at Calvary and we do so again, when we mock his Word, we don’t acknowledge Him as our Creator and Redeemer, we say he’s a myth, and we don’t imitate his character. God knows we do that mostly out of ignorance, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. We are ignorant of spiritual truths, of reality in general, of who God is and so on. He has patience with us and still reaches out to us. But that doesn’t mean God will not hold people responsible for their actions and their unbelief toward him. He warns all of us that there will be a judgment. If there were no consequences and no judgment, then God would go against his own character. He combines love and justice in something the Bible calls grace. God loves even unbelievers and blesses them with earthly blessings. God may heal a skeptic or atheist of an illness and save him or her from a desperate situation. In the parable, the Samaritan didn’t know how that man ended up there. He could have been drunk and it might have been his fault, the Samaritan could have thought to himself. He didn’t ask any questions, he just helped him. That’s unconditional love and God does that with us many times.

    On the other hand, God’s love is conditional upon two things. One is repentance and the other one is receiving Jesus Christ, the One that God has sent, John 17:3. If a person doesn’t repent, he can’t comprehend why his sins are so serious. If he doesn’t receive Christ, he ends up trying to do the impossible. Be as religious or as moralistic as possible from a secular point of view, and try to please God by earning points through good works. It’s never going to work. Good works are very important, but they don’t earn salvation, because salvation is not earned, it’s the gift of God through Jesus, see Romans 5:15, 16. Since God sent Jesus as the Messiah, for the specific purpose of making God known to humans and to bring redemption, see John 17:3, that means faith in him is necessary.

    Let me go back now to the nature of compassion in the parables. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the compassion is unconditional. Some would interpret that to mean that we should give money and help even people who are poor due to circumstances they created and could control. Like the secular statist version of compassion does. The social programs system encourages bums and free loaders to jump on the welfare bandwagon, even if they are healthy and could work for a living. God is very merciful but that doesn’t mean God encourages laziness and taking advantage of other people. In some situations, depending on the context, God wants us to help even a drunkard, maybe. If he’s sorry for his condition, if he really wants to change his life and get it together, then I would help him. That doesn’t mean he has to become a believer, but at least to stop using the money he gets, for his next drink. To give him money for another drink, is to encourage him to continue in something that destroys him both spiritually and physically. God doesn’t encourage that kind of “compassion” and that’s seen in the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32. In this parable, the prodigal son returns home in a spirit of repentance, after he realizes that he was wrong and ruined his life. It says in verse 17, “he came to his senses”. That’s what each of us does, when we turn to God in repentance and receive Jesus as Savior. We come to our senses. He returns home humbly, not demanding anything, except that his father welcomes him back. The father in the parable, represents God. The father receives him and forgives him, but the son doesn’t ask for more money and doesn’t go back to living in sin.

    The Good Samaritan in the parable represents Jesus Christ. He picks us up, and offers to bind our wounds caused by sin, and to give us a new life. He helps us both spiritually and physically, in our earthly needs. We are all fallen by the road, robbed and beaten up by the demons. We are spiritually wounded and morally bankrupt, we can’t lift ourselves up and walk. The only one who can and will really help us is Jesus, the Son of God. He’s like the Good Samaritan. We see Christ as a stranger and we don’t like him, the way Jews didn’t like Samaritans. But he’s the only one who was willing to lay down his life for us and then after he was raised back to life, he gives us a new chance at life, to start over. Jesus does that for us, because that’s what God sent him to do.

    If you have any thoughts on this, let’s continue talking.

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