The Politics of the Good Samaritan

We've projected our political biases onto the parable. Can we hear it again, afresh?
January 18th, 2018

Rowan Williams once related how, when he mentioned the good Samaritan to a class of puzzled schoolchildren, the students asked him whether there had been phones in biblical times. Kids say the darnedest things, but when it comes to the parables of Jesus, and the good Samaritan in particular, we are all more often than not little Whiggish schoolchildren, reading the parable through our own historical and ideological spectacles, oblivious to our presentism, our worldview, our moment.

The insight of this story, found in the postscript of Nick Spencer's newest, little book, The Political Samaritan: How Power Hijacked a Parable, is part of what makes this book brilliant. It is a political archeology of Jesus's famous parable, a kind of exegetical investigation into the parable's politics, and how—startlingly—the good Samaritan somehow sits on both sides of the political aisle. Spencer lays out a sophisticated summary of the church's history of interpretation of the parable, out of which at least seven dominant themes emerge. The difficulty in pinning the Samaritan down is not new.

The good Samaritan somehow sits on both sides of the political aisle.

A few caveats: the book is by Nick Spencer, research director of Theos (the public theology think tank) in the United Kingdom, which is an outstanding, articulate, and accessible Christian think tank but also a British one, which means that for Americans especially there are certain features that will require some catch-up. When Spencer offhandedly mentions "Hansard," for example, he is referring to transcripts of Parliamentary debates, a common term in the Commonwealth, a little less so in America. And yet precisely because the historical and political context is British, because the political archeology is about Thatcher and Blair, and not much about Bush, Obama, or Trump, I commend the book to Americans especially. Here is a chance to dig deep into some thoughtful, original public theology that will not offer you partisan triggers. It is also comparatively short and printed in large, friendly letters.

The Good Samaritan's Problem

The good Samaritan has an identity crisis. Who can blame him? When George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all cite you appreciatively, is it any wonder the Samaritan is not sure who he is or what he stands for? Writes Nick Spencer,

Depending on how narrowly or widely you draw the circle, the parable is about how you interpret the Torah; how you interpret religious and ethical law generally; how you should overcome religious division; how you should overcome ethnic division; how you should not take your ethical status for granted; how you should be morally interventionist; how you should go the extra mile; how you should avoid fixating on legalism and parsing ethical categories; how you should avoid seeing others as the recipients of your ethical care but instead look first at yourself; how love does not allow limits on the definition of neighbour; how one cannot define one's neighbour but only be a neighbour; how you should eschew asking limited self-justifying ethical questions; how we can understand a model for God, humanity and salvation; and how we should stop asking and start doing.

The politics of this varying hermeneutic get even more confusing. Abolitionists talked about the good Samaritan in their struggle to end slavery. Martin Luther King talked about the good Samaritan, so did Hillary Clinton in It Takes a Village, calling the parable an example of compassion toward people of different backgrounds. George W. Bush reasoned that the work of compassion was the work of a nation, not just a government, pledging that America would not pass by on the other side when they saw a wounded traveller.

Margaret Thatcher invoked the good Samaritan, exhorting people to take more responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities rather than depend on the state. Volunteerism, for Thatcher, was an all-important part of the story: "You can't compel people, Christianity isn't about compulsion, it is about doing things for yourself." In Thatcher's good Samaritan society, kind-hearted people have the resources themselves to act on the ethical model of the parable, rather than participate unwillingly in a statist project that produced dependence and poverty.

When the good Samaritan enters the political stage today, it is usually as a device for action and intervention on the part of the state

But the good Samaritan has, of late, been mostly a model for the political left, in Britain the Labour party. Tony Blair used the good Samaritan as a motif for collective responsibility and collective action. Gordon Brown, prime minister during the 2007–2008 financial crisis, used the good Samaritan as a pretext for global Keynesianism, arguing "In a crisis what the British people want to know is that their government will not pass by on the other side but will be on their side." Writes Spencer, "The travelling Samaritan has become a multi-billion-pound British government, stepping across the treacherous financial road and binding the wounds of a damaged and vulnerable public with billions of pounds of taxpayers' money."

Even the defeat of the Islamic State was a pretext for a visit from the good Samaritan. Hilary Benn, a Labour politician and cabinet member, called the threat of Daesh no different from the fascists of Europe in the 1930s. His party opposed fascists then, and they must today: "We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road." Comedian David Mitchell wrote in the Guardian a few days later, "In his version, the Samaritan doesn't just help the traveller who's been mugged, he volunteers to seek out and blow the living crap out of the poor chap's assailants, despite the obvious practical difficulties of knowing who they are and tracking them down."

One thing, at least, is certain. When the good Samaritan enters the political stage today, it is usually as a device for action and intervention on the part of the state. Argues Spencer, "The political Samaritan when he appears in parliament, is, as often as not a symbol not of me but of us."

The Right's Problem

Whether the good Samaritan is fundamentally a political parable is a good question. I think it probably isn't, but it certainly does have political implications even if its core message was directed not to Caesar but to a teacher of the law; not to the state, but to a person. Spencer lays out a few big problems the good Samaritan poses for today's politicians who enlist him, which is to say, almost everyone.

The political community, whether a nation-state or otherwise, is never merely a facilitator of individual desire and liberty.

On what Spencer calls "the right" (and let us keep in mind his British context, thereby making such already vague labels deeply provisional) he finds a crisis of ethics that the good Samaritan underscores. Thatcher herself in her more philosophical moments liked to say that "the role of the state in Christian Society is to encourage virtue, not usurp it." The state, in Thatcher's model, was a problem to be overcome, and usually the good Samaritan's nemesis. "I wonder," she pondered, "whether the State services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him?"

But as captivating as this political and economic rhetoric may seem to the conservative, it extends a libertarian logic to public justice that is not tenable. The political community, whether a nation-state or otherwise, is never merely a facilitator of individual desire and liberty; it is itself a repository of public virtues for which it stands. This is James K.A. Smith's argument in Awaiting the King, one in a long line stretching back to Jonathan Chaplin's Christian diversity state, to Oliver O'Donovan's Desire of the Nations, and to, of course, Augustine. The state, in other words, does stand for things, it is about something, not just a procedural majoritarianism (which also, incidentally, is about a kind of thing).

Somewhat to conservative liberalism's credit, globally (not so much in America), it has sometimes intuited this existential poverty and so tried to recover things like "values," which forthrightly proclaim what the state is for ("Canadian values" or a "Charter of Quebec Values"). Putting aside problems with language like values, even that effort has been conscripted by nationalists and populists sometimes in troubling ways. The inability of liberal conservatives to articulate foundations for the modern liberal state other than reducing the footprint of government is endemic of the anxious pluralism of our time but also of the moral poverty of the so-called Right. Returning to the parable, is its neighbourly nature applicable to communal efforts like politics, or is it only an individual ethics, whose moralism in politics leads only to interventionist tragedy?

The Left's Problem

But if the good Samaritan exposes the political Right's problem with its ethics, as Spencer argues, then he also reveals that the "political left . . . has a problem with its existence." If the Thatcherite Samaritan thins the parable to "either have in order to give, or perhaps give from yourself and don't ask the state to give anything, the Labour Samaritan is even more attenuated, saying, in effect: do something." This has two problems.

No state, certainly not Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even America, can afford to stop every time we see a problem on the Jericho road.

First, there is the problem of an appeal to a biblical story that is increasingly ironic and ignorant. Writes Spencer, "The left, or more precisely the modern metro-liberal left . . . hover somewhere between fear, indifference and dislike when it comes to Christianity." Insofar as Christianity shows up at all, it is invited as a force multiplier for prior secular, liberal policies or values. Tolerance, whether in America's Democratic Party, Canada's Liberal Party, or the United Kingdom's Labour Party, is at an all-time low for the traditional Christian, most especially if those beliefs manifest in non-conformist positions on reproductive rights or sexuality generally. So the good Samaritan is a fine story for signalling the prejudice of the patriarchal, powerful classes over against the vulnerable and overlooked, but its reading must be invoked at a fairly shallow level, lest other less fashionable ethical concerns (or indeed the background of the law within which the parable operates) be raised from the context of Scripture. It should perhaps be said that only the devout will find this a problem. To say, as O'Donovan does, that contemporary morality has a root in some vaguely Christian tradition is about as interesting and binding to most modern liberals as noting that today's spoken English has some roots in ancient Norse. Fascinating, I'm sure, but hardly relevant to much of our day-to-day lives.

But the second problem is thornier. While the Labour Samaritan sounds so much more human, more responsible, more activist, he also functions as a deep rationalization for government's doing just about anything. As Spencer writes, "So long as you can overlook the problem that the agent in the parable is an individual rather than a government or a state, you can find in the story a warrant for doing anything." There is, in this moral universe, no conceivable task to which collective, state effort should not be put, a justification for a kind of political theory that finds itself rather far removed from a parable of Jesus to a teacher of the law in first-century Judea. And how can we adjudicate proximate limits to the kind of radical morality of the good Samaritan in a politics and economics of scarcity? No state, certainly not Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even America, can afford to stop every time we see a problem on the Jericho road. What practical wisdom of statecraft helps us decide who gets government help, who doesn't, what projects to take on, which ones to delay, and so on? Perhaps even more worrying, argues Spencer, confidence in the state as an institution is at an all time low (not just in America): How can government be the solution when so many people have lost faith in it?

Our Problem

So who's right? In one regard, writes Spencer, "no modern deployment of the parable is legitimate. Jesus was talking to and about certain specific historically contingent issues, and any use of the parable to talk about fiscal intervention or health policy, let alone the Euro-crisis or military intervention, is illegitimate." But there is also a sense in which, though partial, these readings are not unreasonable. It is partly for this reason that any Christian politics is a necessarily plural politics: even among Christians, there is not one reasonable practice of government. Much has been made of late about the economics of the minimum wage, but it would be hard from reading the good Samaritan, or indeed much of Scripture, to argue definitively that a state-enforced minimum wage, or indeed no minimum wage at all, is the Christian policy. I do not know, for example, that the Byzantine state had a minimum wage. Or the Armenians, or the early Christian Ethiopians. Were they bad Christians? Did they misunderstand the social and political message of the gospel? These are nonsense questions, of course, intended to provoke us to realize that all ages have not existed simply to produce the enlightenment of ours, and that our readings are provisional, partial, and therefore necessarily plural.

But we can take from our much-abused Samaritan at least one word that is for both Left and Right, for us we might say, as a North Atlantic world. That word is a caution about how ultimate and how extensive this thing called politics has become that even Jesus's parables cannot escape its hegemonic grasp. We have come very far from Bernard Crick's In Defense of Politics, as an essential but limited human affair, one that deals with specific goods, and that is—importantly—not about everything. Or, as Sir Humphrey Appleby from the sardonic British comedy Yes, Prime Minister in Spencer's opening epigraphs says: "It's interesting that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues and bishops want to talk about politics." The state, Abraham Kuyper used to say, is not an octopus. Of course, neither is politics.

Maybe our politics has become so ultimate because it's one of the last things we have in common. Public narrows to mean political. The state, the last public project, exhausts our collective imagination, when it's really only one institution, a specifically political one to exercise the good of justice, but hardly all goods. It thus has an essential but deeply limited function. The American solution, so far, has been to enforce a kind of commonness via those same mechanisms, spiralling the existential stakes of the normally banal routines of political stewardship into a kind of moral, cultural, and spiritual winner-takes-all. The better solution, probably, is to have more things in common, to branch out from the winner-takes-all hysteria of modern politics and rediscover other facets of human life, art, music, literature, sports, family, and so on, whose goods can never be exhausted by something as rude and mundane as politics. By making everything political, we've ruined everything, like the good Samaritan, who ends up as a stand-in for just the most fashionable debates on the size of government, a political problem so far removed from the actual parable that an outsider would have to do considerable study to learn how we got here.

This is the signature brilliance of what Nick Spencer has done in this very small but profound book: a political history of a parable whose telling exposes the fault lines of our present day, its ambivalence to a nonetheless inescapably Christian inheritance, its machinery of utility that crushes any story, art, culture of any kind into fashionable concerns, and its octopus-politics from which no part of the human condition is seemingly exempt, not even Samaritans. What Spencer has done is, I think, ripe for an edited series by an enterprising publisher: an exegetical political history of Jesus's parables, perhaps even set in different historically Christian countries, which opens for us something beyond ourselves, and in the process, does a better job of political therapy than all the narcissistic politics of our present. In other words, I think Spencer's little book is so creative, so fascinating, that I wish there were more political archaeologies of the prodigal son, the unforgiving servant, the two debtors, wise and foolish builders, and so on. Alas, this tiny book is only one for now, so I commend it to you, and its parable, as a kind of politics, true, but also, we can hope, much, much more.


Robert Joustra (Ph.D., University of Bath) teaches politics & international studies at Redeemer University College, where he is also Director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology (Routledge, 2017). He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and an Editorial Fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs.


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