Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Who is my neighbour?

I read Mark Powell's comments on the Good Samaritan some time ago - but its one of those comments that sticks with you. I came back to it again recently and thought it was worth a post. Here it is:

"I have heard, read, preached and taught this tale for decades - mostly in mainline, middle-class Protestant churches... the general consensus has always been that the 'moral of the story' is that we ought to be willing to help anyone in need. Our commitment to relieving human suffering ought to transcend political, ethnic and other sorts of rivalries... So I was a little surprised when I went to live in Tanzania and discovered that many people there understand the story differently. The 'moral of the story', these Tanzanians told me, is that people who have been beaten, robbed and left for dead cannot afford the luxury of prejudice. They will (and should) accept help from whoever offers it. When grain is brought to a famished village, parents of starving children do not much care whether the Muslims, Roman Catholics or the Jehovah's Witnesses bring it... In short, the story was understood to answer the question, 'Who is my neighbour?' not with 'whoever needs my help', but with 'whoever helps me'.

As I shared this illustration in the United States, I found that many American Christians smile at the Tanzanians' reading of the familiar tale, regarding it as a quaint misunderstanding. But who is to say which understanding is correct? The variant interpretations are obtained through empathy choice: Americans tend to identify with the men walking down the road... Tanzanians, however, tend to identify with the person in the ditch and consider the question from his perspective. Obviously, one can do either, but I think it is interesting to note the exact wording of the question that is posed in Luke's Gospel... "Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" He does not ask, "Which of these three regarded the injured man as his neighbour?"...

...The main point of the story was that religious leaders... need to evaluate their faith and life from the perspective of the marginalised people of the earth."

I find this quote by Powell striking as an example of what we can learn by reading the text from the perspective of the oppressed, and how much we can bring our priviliged position to the reading of a text. It has often made me read other texts differently by making me ask: who am I empathising with here?

Maybe in the light of some of our recent blogs about who is good - the answer always needs to asked from the perspective of the oppressed - those who do good to the poor, the suffering and the needy, regardless of their faith profession!
(once again I have taken the opportunity to choose one of my favourite images of the good samaritan).

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