Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Good Samaritan & the FoodBank: it's not about 'do', it's about 'who'

I was recently privileged, along with my sister and brother clergy from Birmingham Diocese, to listen to the Director of Christian Aid, Loretta Minghella, talk to us on 'Grace and Justice', on the very morning that the G8 leaders were drafting their communique on global tax justice. It was a privilege, particularly, to hear someone in such a vital public role 'think in public' through the complexity of responding to a political agreement which would always, inevitably, be a compromise between global justice and vested interests, an 'attempt' which would always also be a 'falling short'. How to respond with 'grace', but also with an undiminished longing for justice?

But Loretta's talk begin in much more intimate territory - with the death of her brother. Anthony Minghella is known to many as an accomplished film director - 'The English Patient' among his most well-known works. But for Loretta, Anthony was first and foremost her brother. His death, 'premature' if that word means anything, left her, as the death of a loved one leaves any of us, with a deep sense of the loss of a unique, irreplaceable human being. But in that realisation, for Loretta, emerged the more universal insight that each person, whoever and wherever they are in the world, is similarly unique, irreplaceable. And it was in that insight, borne out of intimate love and loss, that her passionate commitment to global justice came to life.

This morning, we heard one of the most over-familiar stories of the Christian Scriptures: the Good Samaritan. Its familiarity has bred in us something even worse than contempt: indifference. But we should try to return to it with fresh eyes, to rediscover its shock value, to let it challenge us afresh. The lawyer comes to Jesus to 'test' him: "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asks. He knows the law, and he knows it well: "Love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and Love your neighbour as yourself." Simple to say, demanding, impossible even, to achieve. So he asks a supplementary question: "Ah yes," we hear him saying, "but who is my neighbour?" He is after clarification, definition, boundaries, limits.

And Jesus tells him that story. The one about the priest and the Levite, the good, holy Jews - who pass by on the other side of the road from the man dying in the ditch. And the Samaritan who stops and helps. The 'good Samaritan', we call him - a synonym for kindness, neighbourliness, responsible, active citizenship - the epitome, perhaps, of the 'Big Society'.

The perennial danger with the story is that we take from it only Jesus' final words: "Go, and do likewise." The trouble is, of course, that that's really not the most important thing. The story's not about 'do' - it's about 'who?' It's about a Samaritan: the outsider, the foreigner, the deviant, the enemy, the one 'we' (putting ourselves in the shoes of the good Jews hearing the story for the first time) are most suspicious of, most despise, most go out of our way to avoid. This is 'my neighbour' for that good Jewish lawyer: the one he can't even bring himself to name.

There is renewed excitement, in some quarters, at the moment, about the possibilities for "the Church" (which is often unquestioningly translated as "the Church of England", and that in itself is an issue) to take on the 'provision' of some vital 'services' from the State, as the State withdraws under the cover of 'austerity', or 'localism', or some other guise of neoliberal ideology. One of the latest sparks of excitement came with the launch, at Lambeth Palace last week, of a new report from ResPublica, 'Holistic Mission: Social Action and the Church of England'. The good old CofE, the report argues, with its army of (largely middle-class) volunteers, can provide services and meet needs in ways more holistic, more local, and more personal, than any institution of the State.

This is dangerous, seductive stuff. The seduction is in the possibility not just of being 'useful', but of being 'special', being 'effective', being 'needed'. Many in the CofE mourn the loss of such epithets, and would jump at the chance to recover them. It is much of the attraction (as I've argued here before) of the FoodBank franchise, celebrated by David Cameron as 'the Big Society in action'. We can be society's 'Good Samaritans' once again.

But that is to completely misread the story. Because it's not about 'do', it's about 'who'. It is a challenge to recognise the outsider, the foreigner, the deviant, the enemy, the one 'we' are most suspicious of, most despise, most go out of our way to avoid... as our neighbour. And not just as one who presents to us with 'needs' to be met - but as one who we need, because it is us, it turns out, who are lying half-dead in the ditch.

And that is the truly dangerous message of the gospel. Because it destroys all our carefully-constructed 'professional boundaries', class divisions, 'meritocratic hierarchies', gated communities and financially-entangled 'securities'. It reveals for the dehumanising heresy it is the project of creating our society as a 'hostile environment' for outsiders, and for insiders too who don't fit the current economic model of the 'good' (meaning financially productive) citizen. It refuses our attempts at putting 'pragmatic' limits on who we count as our neighbours, and instead throws us into the limitless ocean of impossible neighbour-love, in which every single unique, irreplaceable human being is swimming. This truly dangerous message is the real 'holistic mission' of the church, if only it would dare to embrace it. And it's not going to make any government happy if it does.

[I'm indebted to Ivan Illich's reading of the Good Samaritan for much of the thinking behind this piece. You can hear him talking about it here, and there's also an excellent introduction to it here. I'm grateful, as ever, to Cormac Russell of ABCD Europe for pointing me in the direction of Illich.]