Monday, January 30, 2017

A Call for Good Samaritans!

Ministers of all faiths, tomorrow you should get in your pulpit with the Christian Bible and preach on Luke 10:25-37”.

By tweeting thus, American author Stephen King has made a seemingly astounding claim. He has clearly said that the parable of the Good Samaritan must be restated and reaffirmed as the foundational moral framework for our current world civilization, which is beset by intolerance, insanity and a marvelous lack of concern for the suffering.

This parable, originally told by Jesus to his interlocutors nearly two thousand years ago, has gone on to have a definitive impact on the social ethics of a multicultural, multiracial world.  

In the parable, Jesus was addressing the question: “Who is my neighbour?” The learned fellow Jews wanted clarity on what Jesus had just said: “Love your neighbour.” What followed is too well known to need repetition. But in this post-truth world, one must restate the obvious.

Jesus told his interlocutors about a man who was robbed on a highway and was left wounded and naked, waiting for a slow death in the wilderness. A couple of priests, one after the other, happened to go past their countryman. They chose to ignore him. It was a man from the neighbouring Samaria, apparently a trader, who had compassion on the wounded Jew, gave him first aid, got him into a room in an inn, paid for it, and promised to check on him on his way back.

The now bashful interlocutors had no option but to concede that the true neighbourly love was
expressed not by the pious and proud fellow countrymen but by a despised foreigner.

The impact of this parable must have been astounding. Jews and Samaritans were nationally and racially opposed to each other. The territorial and religious boundaries were always a source of controversy and conflict. Jesus with this simple parable, dealt a death blow to the notions of national and racial superiority. It struck at the very heart of ethnocentricism of Jesus’s audience.

Compassion for the foreigner, for the stranger, was inoculated into the DNA of our civilizational existence on that day. The parable told in an insignificant Middle-Eastern city colonised by the imperial Rome, went on to established its reign in the hearts and minds of men and women in the West and also in the East.

From proto-fiction to world literature

 The Good Samaritan by W. Hogarth, Fielding's friend
For hundreds of years this parable, the morally binding tale of compassion as duty, was repeated from the pulpits every other weekend. Rural folk got drunk on it. Kings and rulers were challenged by it. Through this fictional but plausible account, generations were initiated into the barbarity and beauty they would encounter in the world. The narrative potential of this proto-humanist fiction was immense. Novelists used it to critique hypocrisy of their societies. Henry Fielding, the pioneering English novelist of the eighteenth century, for example, deploys it in his novel Joseph Andrews (1742) to just that effect. The poor protagonist is wounded by robbers and is left to die on the road side. Respectable people initially refuse helping him. The poor postilion shares his coat with him. Class, charity, law, fear, compassion, all elements of great fiction are embodied in this incident.

And, it has to be more than a coincidence that this trope occurs in other literatures of the world.

In the first Tamil novel, written by Samuel Vedanayagam Pillai, Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram (1879), the protagonist’s grandfather, a Hindu, helps an injured Muslim “fakir”. While the others from his village avoid touching him for fear of ostracism, Prathapa’s grandfather “felt that it was his duty to help anyone in danger”.  

In the first Punjabi novel, Sundari (1897) by Bhai Vir Singh, the eponymous Sikh protagonist, helps, not once but twice, injured and abandoned Muslims—albeit with tragic consequences.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora (1910), Hindu parents of Gora too render help to a dying Irish soldier.

Pakistan’s Urdu writer Abdullah Hussain includes such incidence, which has considerable bearing on the plot, in his most important novel The Weary Generations (1999; Udas Naslain, 1963). 

Better-read people could add to this list. The underlying idea is that helping the helpless could alter our histories and the moral direction of our society. This story must be told and retold in as many forms as possible. It fascinated our novelists and writers through the years. It fascinates anyone who wishes to make sense of our world, who wants to find answer to the question: How should we live in a world bereft of compassion and civility?

Stephen King, the novelist, knows that there is no other place where he could find answer to this question except in Luke 10:25–37. 

This was the question that Jesus’s audience wanted to find an answer to. They asked what the greatest commandment was. Jesus’s answer was twofold: Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

This is the question, incidentally, we Indians are seeking an answer to, especially since the "Nirbhaya" incident of December 2012. And, perhaps even before that, since 1971, since 1947!


Jeremiah Duomai said...

Yes, loving one's neighbour specially the widows, orphans and the refugees is so foundational for Christian social and political ethics.

Ashish Alexander said...

Thanks for your comment, Jeremiah! I am saying that this is no longer confined to Christian ethics but has been universalised with a peculiar force.

Kingdom come said...

Perhaps at a time when world over we are become exclusive, dogmatic and chauvinist in our attitudes towards the other, it's a powerful reminder.

Deepak Ransom said...

Couldn't agree with you more. Not just this parable but others too and several New Testament events and moral principles have greatly coloured both our language and socio-ethical thinking especially the whole area of loving one's neighbour and nonviolence. The whole idea of "turning the other cheek" so often attributed to Gandhiji is actually Jesus'!The principles of christian ethics have had a sociology and have indeed "been universalised with a peculiar force".

Sourav Das said...

Yes.We need such positive and inspiring examples not only in literature,but in all our day to day lives too which I'm
sure we will become an epitome of by reading such questioning literature.

Malsawmi Jacob said...

This story of utmost kindness to a complete stranger - and in the context in which it was told, to someone from a group who would treat you like a dog - ah, the Lord always hits hard! And ends with the clear command "Go and do likewise." I cringe every time I read this story.

I like the way you have brought this out as presented in the literature of different people and languages.

Sushant Das said...

Thank you Ashish, for bringing out this parable has impacted in various literature.
Ultimately compassion is an individual decision, not taken on a sense of duty alone.
I have often wondered if the pressures of life would have made me act the same way as those mentioned in the following story:

Ashish Alexander said...

Thanks, Sushant! The news story that you shared was exactly what had set me thinking about these issues in this manner. I was, of course, reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I also remembered the incident in the novel "Joseph Andrews". It seemed to me that this particular parable was the touchstone as far as creation of a cohesive national community was concerned.

Helping others in that sense is not an individual's personal or private decision; it must have an immediacy, a sense of response to a commandment, a sense of duty. It grows out of our recognition of God's concern for the wounded stranger.