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 the self-love of the world.

I have noticed that this parable often shows up in secular moral theory as an example of an acceptable religious concept for the public square (See “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” by John Rawls). It is also used in a number of ways that…well…few Mormons might expect (see section 6 of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion”). [Author’s Note: I will be revisiting both of these at a future date]

What strikes me most about this parable is not so much the story itself, but Christ’s use of a Samarian 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 inferior. My thoughts trace this idea 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 often viewed as controversial. The required general education course “Ethics and Values” (which I taught almost full-time for two years) was often viewed as some sort of liberal god-less conspiracy against the good 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, then, Sean Hannity.

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. They may not have represented Utah County values. But they did represent values of a different kind.

8 Replies to “The Good Samaritan as The Other”

  1. It’s funny how in modern usage, it’s always the Good Samaritan. I think Samaritan then connotes a positive example, such that we lose the original meaning. Perhaps a more modern application would be “saintly criminal” or something.

  2. Judith Jarvis Thomson, in the article I linked to above, talks about the minimally decent Samaritan (not stopping to help but calling 911) and the exceptional Samaritan (not only caring for the injured, but throwing oneself between the attackers and the victim…assuming you were around for the attack). FHL is correct, in all of these cases, Samaritan has come to mean moral or benevolent actor, as opposed to an ethnic/national identity.

    Ben, Thanks.

  3. William F. Buckley, sainted conservative icon and devout Catholic, once said when a friend died: “Every time I think I’ve found the perfect Christian he turns out to be a lapsed Jew.” I take from this one need not be Mormon nor Christian nor even religious to be an angel when someone is in need.

  4. No worries, Chris. The take aways from this parable are things we need reminding of over and over, and this was a great post. You can almost reduce the parable to a single paradoxical truth: who is my neighbor? Easy — the person I hate.

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