Becoming a Neighbor

Becoming a Neighbor (Luke 10. 25-37)

We live in a world of pluralism-of cultures, of religions, of worldviews. Every attempt to question this undeniable diversity is suspect. The biggest challenge we face today is to practice and propagate the inclusive ideas at social, political and cultural level, the ideas and values which unite people cutting across religion, ethnicity and language.

One of the virtues that bind people of diverse cultures is compassion. Jesus, in the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, links compassion to neighborliness. His response in the form of the parable of the Compassionate Samaritan is provoked by the lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?”

The identity of the neighbor is logically prior to any proposed normative actions towards the neighbor. Otherwise, how can we assess the adequacy of actions toward the neighbor apart from some knowledge of the identity of the neighbor, the neighbor’s needs, his/her life circumstances? For much of human history, questions about the identity of the neighbor have been considered within the narrow contexts of blood ties, the familiar boundaries of commonly shared cultural traditions, or the tight confines of geographical proximity. Due to the challenge of ensuring group survival and strategic requirements to maintain group security and self-interests, mistrust of the stranger or alien came to occupy a central place in the evolution of group consciousness, which perceives the world as binary: “insiders” and “outsiders”. The categorization of people as “insiders” and “outsiders” would lead to discrimination and marginalization. It is important to note that the negative evaluation of “outsiders” has nothing to do with what the marginalized are. But the discriminators conceive of the discriminated in such a way that their negative evaluation of “others” is always justified.

The above worldview underlies the question of the lawyer in the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?” For him, knowledge of the limits or boundaries of his love is important, because neighbor, for him, is the object of love. As long as the neighbor remains an object, the issue remains legal: what are the limits of my responsibility, how far does it extend? One who asks thus is not at liberty to action, but bound by compunctions and the need for interpretation.

Jesus’ answer moves away from the lawyer’s understanding of neighbor as the object of love to neighbor as the agent of love and compassion. Jesus turns the focus inward with a view toward cultivating the dispositions of persons whose character will always predispose them to treat the neighbor as one would treat oneself. This turn inward makes all the difference in the world, not only in terms of how the neighbor is identified, but also in terms of the resources that people bring to this task. Cultivation of character, the seat of values, positions a person to be sensitive to the particular circumstances in which any neighbor is placed. The integrity of the act of showing neighborly love can never be realized fully until one becomes disposed to be a neighbor. By being disposed to be a neighbor, one will embody the virtue of neighborliness. Commenting on the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan, Augustine observed that focus must be on becoming the neighbor before any genuine moral acts toward the neighbor can ensue: “For the word ‘neighbor’ implies a relationship: one can only be a neighbor to a neighbor. Who can fail to see that there is no exception to this, nobody to whom compassion is not due?” Jesus’ final question to the lawyer – “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” – makes it clear that “‘neighbor’ is not a category that the lawyer is authorized to apply to others, instead it takes the form of a challenge and recoils back upon him as a moral agent capable either of being or of failing to be a neighbor to someone else.”

Shifting our focus from identifying the neighbor to that of becoming the neighbor helps us to invest our energies, not on defining precisely who deserves the status of neighbor, but in developing requisite virtues, character traits and predispositions such that we will act as the neighbor. This also prevents us from playing the “Compassionate Samaritan” by condescending acts of charity and aid, and deluding ourselves into a false “good conscience”. The natural response of the Compassionate Samaritan to the particular needs of the wounded man is because he acquired an internal disposition to be neighborly. Notice that Jesus, in the parable, did not mention the ethnicity of the wounded person. This seems to be intentional. For the Compassionate Samaritan such distinctions are irrelevant. His compassion transcends “insider” “outsider” barriers. For the Samaritan there was only one response: he saw the wounded man and “he was moved with compassion”.

Compassion does not mean feeling sorry for people. It does not mean pity. Compassion means to suffer with, to put oneself in others’ shoes, to enter into the other person’s experience. Compassion is not done “on” people or “to” them from a position of invulnerability. It is the capacity to identify with the one suffering.

Compassion is the primary characteristic of the incarnation. God in Jesus Christ identified with human beings. God became vulnerable. This vulnerability and identification with the weak, vulnerable and needy is seen in Jesus’ association with the poor, the sick and the marginalized.

In the story of Jesus healing the leper, Jesus expressed compassion by touching him and healing him (Mk. 1.40 cf. Lk. 5.13). By touching the leper, Jesus was subverting the dehumanizing dominant system that had deviously deprived certain groups of people of human dignity and value, and marginalized them. Jesus used his kingdom power and authority to serve the weak, vulnerable and marginalized. His message of the kingdom of God proclaimed through words and deeds signifies service and inclusion. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus is described as touching the hand of people in the context of healing: a leper (Mk. 1.41 cf. Lk. 5.13), Peter’s mother-in-law (Mk. 1.31), the dead Jairus’ daughter (Mk. 5.41 cf. Lk. 8.54), a deaf man (Mk. 7.33), the blind man (Mk. 8.23), and the dumb and deaf boy (Mk. 9.27). There are also several instances of people touching Jesus: the woman with hemorrhage (Mk. 5.27-28 cf. Lk. 8.44) and the crowd seeking healing (Mk. 3.10, 6.56). Among these healings by touch, several concern people generally considered unclean. Defilement constructs a barrier between the unclean person and the rest of the community. The transmission of defilement from the unclean person kept him/her away from the community. The bone of contention between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities is the unregulated contact with the unclean. Jesus refused to recognize such boundaries that excluded certain groups of people.

Also, Jesus’ ministry does not confine to Jewish dominated areas. His ministry of exorcism, healing and teaching includes the Gentiles. His ministry of the kingdom of God is an inclusive ministry, not an excluding one. Jesus associated with tax-collectors and sinners and ate with them (Mk. 2.14-17 cf. Lk. 5.27-32). He exorcised a person in Gerasenes, a Gentile territory (Mk. 5.1-20 cf. Lk. 8.26-39) and healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk. 7.26), thus demonstrating that God’s compassion has no boundaries.

Into the world where the poor and the marginalized are regarded as despicable, dishonored and ugly, and treated with contempt, Jesus Christ brought a social ethic of human dignity and value. In the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan Jesus refused to engage in the processes of group differentiation and stereotypification. He formulated a new principle: “Act as a neighbor to people in need.” In the words of Gandhi, “act as a friend”. Gandhi wrote: “Independent India as conceived by me will have all Indians belonging to different religions living in ‘perfect friendship’.” For Gandhi “perfect friendship” was not based on tolerance or equidistance, but on an active involvement in each others’ lives as full citizens. Neighbor or friend ignores caste, class, race and gender boundaries, when expressing neighborly love and compassion to fellow human beings.

Commitment to a new civilization of love and compassion, and human dignity, value and rights is fundamental to Christian missions. The Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan exposes any religion with “mania for creeds and an anemia for compassion.” The poor, weak and marginalized become a test for the authenticity of one’s religion. The Christian mission recognizes full humanity, dignity, rights and equality of those historically marginalized, oppressed and exploited. Their socio-economic state is imposed on them by the rich and powerful. In the present times, one of the major causes for the imposed socio-economic situation of the poor and marginalized is globalization and “free” trade, which caters to the greed of the rich and powerful. Commenting on globalization Pope John Paul II wrote:
The ethical implications (of globalization) can be positive or negative. There is an economic globalization which brings some positive consequences such as efficiency and increased production and which, with the development of economic links between the different countries, can help to bring greater unity among peoples and make possible a better service to the human family. However, if globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative. These are, for example, the absolutizing of the economy, unemployment, the reduction and deterioration of public services, the destruction of the environment and natural resources, the growing distance between rich and poor, unfair competition which puts the poor nations in a situation of ever increasing inferiority.

Let me share the impact of globalization and free trade system on one sector in India, that is, agriculture. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there have been 166,304 farmers’ suicides in a decade since 1997 in India. Of these, 78,737 occurred in five years between 1997 and 2001. The next five years – from 2002 to 2006 – proved worse, seeing 87,567 take their lives. That means, on an average, there has been one farmer’s suicide every 30 minutes since 2002.

What was the cause for these innocent deaths? Economic poverty? Yes. However, the deeper question is: why were they poor? Only this question would make one to see the root cause of their poverty. Some of the major causes are the international trade agreements and the policies of the International loan agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF, which are usually designed to enhance the capital of the transnational companies. In 1998, the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies forced India to open its seed sector to transnational corporations. As a result of this adjustment, traditional farm saved seeds have been replaced with genetically engineered seeds which are non-renewable. So the farmers have to purchase seeds for each growing season, which is a costly investment for them. In most cases this has led to poverty and severe indebtedness. In order to relieve themselves of debt, some farmers have even sold their own organs. When these attempts have failed to rectify their financial situations, many farmers committed suicide.

This reality reveals that the problem one needs to address is not just economic poverty, but also the structures or systems that cater to the greed of the rich and powerful. These systems or structures deprive the poor of human dignity, value and rights. To people in such situations, Christian mission as an expression of neighborly love and compassion means atleast three things: first, an awareness of human dignity, value and rights; second, sharing with them according to their need; third, addressing the systemic or structural causes through identification, advocacy and participation in the local self-determinative action. Christian community not only identifies with fellow victims of various forms of violence, but also listens to and reports their story shared by them. In her book Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions Teresa Godwin Phelps cites the poem of Antjie Krog. Antjie Krog reported the painful experiences of victims during the South African Truth Commission. She wrote: “Beloved, do not die. Do not dare die! I, the survivor, wrap you in words so that the future inherits you. I snatch you from the death of forgetfulness. I tell your story, complete your ending – you who once whispered beside me in the dark.”

Becoming a neighbor has a bearing on one’s eternal life. Remember that the dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer started with the latter’s question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer was to become a neighbor to the one in need. Francis of Assisi had realized this truth. He said: “It is the poor one who saves: Middle-class rich boy that I was, I never would have thought that it would be the poor who would be my salvation. Owing to the upbringing I had received at my mother’s hands, as well as the attitude of the church I had been attending up until that time, I had always thought that it was we rich and well-to-do who would be the ones to rescue the poor. The latter depended on us, it seemed, and our generosity was their salvation. Without us they would have been destined to death. What blindness was ours and mine! The truth was just the contrary, and now life was demonstrating this to me. It was the poor who would be my salvation, and not I theirs. It was they who would put me back on my feet.”

He further said: “Basically I was giving the middle class a slap in the face. My poor garments said, “Don’t you see that it is you who are the thieves? That it is you who reduce your fellow citizens to poverty? You, Peter di Bernardone, you have grown rich only by squeezing the last drop of sweat out of your workers, and you live and thrive on the tears of those who worked for you before and who now, unemployed and enfeebled, lie begging alms on the steps of the churches of Assisi.”

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