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.