I wonder whether any single story ever told has had so powerful an impact on Western civilization as the story of the good Samaritan. Hospitals are named for him, laws are passed on the subject, and news reports tell us frequently about good Samaritans who helped someone else beyond the call of duty.

Let me tell you how I first came to take the story seriously myself.

Many years ago, I was rector of a parish on the South Shore of Long Island: Christ Church Lynbrook in Nassau County, a suburban parish about a half-hour out from Penn Station. It was a very middle-class community and people had worked hard to get there. Some of the men held two jobs to help pay the mortgage. They worked hard to own a home in a good community with a good school that would be a good place to raise children. To the north of Lynbrook was the village of Malverne, a wealthier community, and to the northeast was West Hempstead, a primarily black community, formed long ago as a place for the servants to live who worked for the wealthy people in Malverne and Garden City.

Now, school district lines on Long Island bear little relationship to the village borders. The “Lynbrook school district,” so-called, included two-thirds of Lynbrook but not all of it. There was another school district called school District 12 or, carelessly referred to as, the “Malverne school district,” which included the northeast corner of Lynbrook, which was in the parish I served, but it also included most of Malverne and West Hempstead. So about one third of the parish I served was in school District 12. School District 12, then, contained parts of three communities and, as a result, there were three elementary schools, one in each neighborhood, but there was only one high school serving the whole district. Now, what that meant, of course, was that there were two elementary schools in which children were white and one in which they were black but they all went to the same high school.

About 10 years before I was called to be Rector of Christ Church Lynbrook the Supreme Court handed down its famous decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education which said that segregated education is inherently unequal and that schools designated specifically for black children prevented them from gaining an equal education. It wasn’t long before parents in West Hempstead began thinking about their own situation and brought a suit against the Malverne Board of Education in which they said, “Our children are not receiving an education equal to that in the two other schools and therefore when they get to high school they can’t keep up with the other children. The local school board refused to respond so they appealed eventually to the state courts which agreed with them and established for the first time in New York State the principle that segregated education is an inferior education even if, as was the case here, segregation was not established intentionally.

The court ruled that the school district would have to assign children on a random basis to the three elementary schools and provide buses to get them from their neighborhoods to their assigned schools. The result of that ruling was a series of challenges and counter challenges
that went to the courts as white parents and black parents formed groups and hired lawyers and year after year one side or the other side would win or lose and first one side and then the other would protest and appeal and boycott.

Now all this had begun before I got there, but I remember a time when the white parents had won the latest appeal and the black parents had called a boycott. They said that their children would not go to school at all until something was done and meanwhile they were calling on local institutions to provide space where their children could be cared for during the day with temporary classes and programs. I remember suggesting to the vestry of Christ Church Lynbrook that our parish hall space might be available and I remember that the most support I got for that idea was from the senior warden who didn’t speak at all during the ensuing discussion. So that idea didn’t fly.

I remember going to protest meetings as an observer – since I myself didn;t live in the district – and sitting with a parishioner who had worked and saved to buy a house a block from the school for his three children and was now understandably upset to think that his children would have to ride a bus to a school in another neighborhood.

Somewhere about this time the Sunday gospel was the story of the good Samaritan who stopped beside the road at risk to himself to help a man of another ethnic group who was lying there wounded. I remember preaching that day about that parable without any specific reference to the issue at hand but hoping that somewhere in that story was the way forward, hoping that somehow all those involved, black and white alike, could find the courage to stop considering their own advantage and see the humanity of the others. There was no way everyone could win, but perhaps there was a way that all those involved could begin to risk their own security and welfare for the sake of the broader needs of the human community.

Well, I spent six years in that community and they were still fighting it out when I left. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that what the Gospel had to offer was not specific solutions to specific problems but stories like the story of the good Samaritan that held the potential to become our story, held the potential to reshape a community not by laws and court orders and coercion but from inside human hearts.

A number of years after that I went to a conference in Hawaii. It was a conference of Episcopalians engaged in ministry to Asian people: congregations in this country of people from Japan and Korea and the Philippines and Vietnam and China and India. I was involved tangentially in a ministry to Japanese people in the New York area and that was my excuse for a trip to Hawaii.

One night during the conference each ethnic group was asked to produce a skit based on one of the parables and a group from Karala state in India did a skit about the good Samaritan. In their skit a man was set upon by robbers and left to die beside the road. A school teacher came by and a Christian priest and a lawyer and they all walked quickly past on the other side of the road afraid that the same robbers might also attack them. But then, as they acted out their skit, a communist came by and the communist stopped and picked the man up and took him to the next village and cared for him. When the skits were over each group was asked to discuss their performance and the reasons for it. The group from Karala State explained that for a very long time the Christian church had stood there and preached compassion and help for the poor but people had continued to be poor and hungry and very little had changed. But then, they said, the Communists were elected to govern and things began to change. The poor were given land and the hungry were fed and human needs were being met. Just as the Jews of Jesus time saw no good in the Samaritans, so the Christians in Karala State saw no good in the Communists, but when there was need it wasn’t the Christians who responded but the despised and rejected Communists. Perhaps, they said, we need to see beyond labels and understand that God can work through many agencies to help those in need. Perhaps even a communist can be my neighbor.

I remember on another occasion visiting Manila in the Philippines and seeing in the oldest part of the city signs describing what happened there during the Japanese occupation: how prisoners were put in cells designed by the Spaniards centuries before in such a way that the water would come into them at high tide and drown the prisoners and carry out their bodies. I remember hearing somewhere that the Japanese military administration of Singapore in those years was very different because the Japanese general in Singapore was a Christian and had learned to see even the enemy as his neighbor. I remember discussions with our Filipino hosts about the difference between a society formed by Christian ethics and one formed by Confucian ethics because the one is an open system that has a principle about one’s neighbor and the other is a closed system prescribing duty towards those within the system but nothing for those outside.

Back at the earliest level of the biblical story there is the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. For Jews and Christians it is one of the most fundamental principles. But what a difference there is between a principle and a story. The principle applies to every human situation: school districts on Long Island, poor people in Karala State, the homeless and hungry in Hartford and Bridgeport and Torrington, and the illegal alien in our neighborhood. But a principal is a wooden thing: stiff and unwieldy and hard to bring to bear when my interests are at stake. A story is different: often I can see myself in the story and think about how I might act in a similar situation. So on the one hand there are principles and on the other hand there is a story, a story familiar to every Christian and many non-Christians as well, a story that brings a principle to life and shapes who we are, a story that needs to be our story, something we live out in our lives, a story we have heard in such a way that we go ourselves and do likewise.

1 Comment

LibbyJuly 15th, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I think I read this on the right day–I’m just working through some theology of story materials myself, and this is exactly the kind of point I want to make: that “what the Gospel had to offer was not specific solutions to specific problems but stories like the story of the good Samaritan that held the potential to become our story, held the potential to reshape a community not by laws and court orders and coercion but from inside human hearts.” Or, that stories show us a way forward, allow us to imagine ourselves a different reality from the one we currently inhabit. That’s very useful. Thanks.

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