The Good Samaritan as The Other

The parable of the Good Samaritan is well known and much beloved. The image of the caring Samaritan tending to the bruised and bleeding traveler speaks to the goodness of mankind; despite our egoism.

I have noticed that this parable often shows up in secular moral theory. John Rawls uses it as an example of an reasonable religious concept that would fit within the parameters public reason (see “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” by John Rawls). It is also used in a number of ways that…well…few might expect (see section 6 of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”).

What strikes me most about this parable is not so much the story itself, but Christ’s use of a Samaritan as the protagonist. Not only do the Levite and the Priest fall short of their neighborly obligation, but the one who is the good example is from a despised people.

The Samaritans fall within the category of “the other.” The other tends not only be different, but is inherently treated as inferior. The other is the “them” in “us vs. them.” Now, the other is not actually inferior or negative in any way, but within our cultural and nationalistic narratives they are framed or presented as such.

My thoughts about “the other” can be traced back to Simone de Beauvoir’s discussion of women as “the other” in The Second Sex, but I know that many others have discussed this concept in philosophy and sociology.

The parable of the Good Samaritan does answer the question of “Who is my neighbor?” However, it also serves as a rebuke of the lawyer who asked the question. The shock value of it all. The use of the high priest and the Levite as poor examples of love, while at the same time having a Samaritan play the hero, appears to be intentional. This is Christ at his most Socratic. He is not only pleading with us to universally love other people, but he is also challenging our preconceived conceptions of righteousness. It is not the offices we hold, or our place of origin, but our loving actions that stand as a testament to our righteousness and morality.

The Good Samaritans in my life have often been from “the other.”

My daughter was born in September 2005 with significant complications. At the time, I was adjuncting in the Philosophy department at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University). We had budgeted for the medical costs, but we had not expected extra days in the NICU or the future required surgeries.

The Philosophy Department at Utah Valley was viewed by some as controversial. The required general education course “Ethics and Values” (which I taught almost full-time for two years) was often viewed as a liberal godless conspiracy against the good innocent Mormon college students of Utah. The Philosophy Department did not represent “Utah County values.” This sense of otherness was heightened during the fury earlier that year surrounding the visits to campus by Michael Moore and Sean Hannity to campus.

Near the end of the Fall Semester, the department held its annual Christmas party at the home of a senior faculty member. My wife and I did not attend because we lived too far away. The next morning, I received an email from the associate department chair Christine Weigel. They had gathered up some money for us at the party. She asked if we wanted to come by her home and pick it up. We were touched. When we picked up the envelope later that day, we discovered that over $400 had been collected for us. We sat in the car and cried.

Our Good Samaritans had come in the form of a group made up of unorthodox believers, agnostics, and atheists. Some were straight and others gay. Few knew me well and some likely did not know me at all. There was no press release drawing attention to the kind deed.

They may not have represented Utah County values. But they did represent Good Samaritan values. For that, my family will be forever grateful.

Categories: Culture, Philosophy, Religion

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