The parable of the good Samaritan is well known, and most of us would like to cast ourselves sympathetically in that story. But we may be challenged by the words of Martin Luther King Jr on that – “I imagine that the first question the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ The good Samaritan engaged us in a dangerous altruism.”
I’ve been approached more than once by people who knew me as a child to tell me how they continue to live with regret because they felt they’d failed to intercede strongly enough to save me from the abusiveness of those close to me. I feel no grievance towards those who tried to speak up, even if their voices were not sufficient to protect me. I am salved by the knowledge that some protest was raised, though out of my hearing at the time. But we may all learn to speak up more effectively when needs be.
In recent years I have experienced a small group collectively condemning an individual, played out in a public forum. This is called mobbing. It can happen when a charismatic personality who holds a certain level of authority influences those who want to think they behave righteously – but are blinded to the malign motives of the influencer. It is bullying of course, but not everyone recognises the part they’ve been constrained into. In that room where that one person was being vilified, many others sat as mute witnesses. There were various reasons for that, but mostly it was shock and disbelief in the moment – many later expressed their outrage; some firmly (but futilely) and behind closed doors, and others were quieter out of political impotence. Fear of attracting similar polarization and persecution on themselves was a strong undercurrent for all. The individuals situation eventually moved on, but the culture is insufficiently changed and so others remain at risk.
That such bullying and ostracism happens is not a surprise. People do that so often, from playground onwards – we play ‘us-vs-them’, we name-call and construct hierarchies of power on many levels. We excuse the harms inflicted because we are adept at justifying our behaviours for personal comfort and protection, whichever side we find ourselves. We also find it too difficult to believe that those we trust can also be abusive. Moral integrity, in or out of the established church, should disrupt that pattern. Martin Luther King gave a sermon on ‘The one-sided approach of the good Samaritan’ in which he criticised the Samaritan as one who sought to soothe the effects of evil without going back to uproot the causes. He wrote, ‘There is no suggestion that the Samaritan sought to investigate the lack of police protection on the Jericho road. Nor did he appeal to any public officials to set out after the robbers and clean up the Jericho road. Here was the weakness of the good Samaritan. He was concerned [merely?] with temporary relief, not with thorough reconstruction. He sought to soothe the effects of evil, without going back to uproot the causes.’
This is the difference between peace-making and peace-keeping. Holding one’s tongue, or effectively mollifying aggressors, can be keeping the peace but often by tacitly bolstering the bullies. Unfortunately it condemns them to a greater fall in the end, rather than redirecting their path.
The numbers of de-churched are astonishingly high. It is a dispersed and disillusioned congregation. Many of them know that those within are averse to reframing the Priest and Levite’s question and will simply continue on their worthy way. But the injured parties are getting back on their feet now and are finding their own voices. They understand, and stand for, peace-making. Priests and Levites alike would do well to listen carefully, to put aside their own habitual agendas and help clean up the narrow road.