February 22, 2021 Editor

Christians as Dangerously Empathic Good Samaritans

image above: The Good Samaritan Painting by Tissot

WN: In short: for us in the wealthy West, Jesus makes us, at minimum, squirm. . .


Is the idea of Christians becoming political radicals, a far-fetched one? To state my case from the outset: Whatever other differences may exist among Christians on some issues, from my understanding of Jesus’s message, a better question might be how can they not become political radicals? And I won’t mince words out of fear that some might take offense. The principles of our capitalist economic system and the irreducible core of Jesus’s teaching are irreconcilable.

If there’s a bedrock principle in the Gospels it’s found in the parable of the Good Samaritan. According to Luke 10: 24-37, Jesus told the parable as part of a Socratic dialogue with an expert in Jewish law. The lawyer asks Jesus how to attain eternal life, a question that Jesus turns on the lawyer, asking him, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer cites Deuteronomy 6:5 about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, strength, and mind but then adds “and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s it, replies Jesus. But then, the lawyer asks, desiring to justify himself and perhaps trip up Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer may have wanted Jesus to demarcate some specific boundaries, thus enabling him to ignore everyone outside of them. Rather than a direct answer, Jesus responds with the parable: . . .

It wasn’t until much later when reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s updating of the parable that I began to appreciate just how much Jesus was a counter-culture revolutionary. I also began to recognize its present day applicability, especially when grounded in a wider socioeconomic context. Without invoking any supernatural dimension to the parable, we know there is overwhelming evidence that (almost) all people have an innate capacity for empathy. And in the parable imparted by Jesus, the Samaritan didn’t act because of religious beliefs but was “moved by compassion.” Dr. King frequently preached about the Good Samaritan, invariably sourcing “Love They Neighbor” within a moral universalism and we know it’s the unifying moral principle in all the world’s great religions, including Christianity.

In our world, with all of its victims lying by the side of the road, the parable raises at least two additional lessons. First, the Samaritan didn’t consult a checklist of prohibited victims like undocumented worker, those with different sexual orientations, accent, skin color, political or religious affiliation, whether he was pro-life or a member of a marginalized community.

Second, and this directly relates to my purpose, King cautioned that while one-on-one empathy is commendable we can’t “overlook the circumstances which makes philanthropy necessary.” In other words, King is suggesting that the problem is as much the identity of the robbers and the treacherous journey taken by the injured man. Yes, helping the injured roadside victim is laudatory but Jesus also meant one’s neighbor means “any needy man on one of the numerous Jericho roads of life.” King is updating the parable to mean all victims of injustice and calling out modern day pillagers and plunderers here in the United States.

Jesus’s admonition of “Go and do likewise” takes on new meaning because making the world more conducive to loving our neighbors requires one to practice what I’ve termed elsewhere “dangerous empathy.” Dangerous, because the wealthy elite in this country can’t allow questions about existing institutions of our society to gain purchase. And just as the powers of the time saw Jesus as a threat, those who own and control virtually everything that matters in our country will label anyone promoting dangerous empathy a radical subversive in an effort to stigmatize and discredit them. However, the original definition of radical comes from the Latin radix, or root, as in someone speaking or writing about fundamental truths. This means going beyond addressing symptoms to identifying and doing something about the root causes of our neighbors’ suffering.

Please click on: Good Samaritan/Dangerous Empathy


Visits: 95


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.