American politics, neighbors, and enemies

I’ve been thinking lately about the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel (10:25-37). At the same time, I’ve been reading the newspapers (usually the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) and listening to podcasts like Honestly with Bari Weiss and Truth Over Tribe. Can I just say this? The world is a mess. And so is the U.S.

While it may be true that the United States is divided and angry in many ways, it is not the worst of times. People abuse power, the rich seem to get richer while the poor and middle class suffer, and social media influencers are primarily famous for being famous. But living under Roman rule in the first century was no picnic. The PBS website about world empires asserts, “The Roman Empire in the first century AD mixed sophistication with brutality and could suddenly lurch from civilization, strength, and power to terror, tyranny, and greed.” Judaea, a Roman province that included Judea and Samaria among other regions, was divided among lines of political loyalty (Rome versus autonomy), religion (Roman polytheism versus Jewish monotheism), and social standing, which had a detailed hierarchy from the Emperor to the lowest female slave of the poor, both Roman and Jew. Revolts against Roman rule were commonplace, and punished by crucifixion, among other brutalities. Taxes ensured the poor stayed poor; there were no real opportunities to improve their social status. It was into this world that Jesus arrived, upsetting the religious status quo with his unorthodox interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures to the degree that the Pharisees and Sadducees (sworn enemies on every other matter) ensured that he would be executed by crucifixion on a false charge of government sedition. 

Jesus’ life from the very beginning created chaos in the religious and, eventually, civic culture. His birth to a virgin who saw an angel was only the beginning. Everything he did from the age of 12 was an affront to tradition. His adult ministry may have only lasted about three years, but it made enough powerful people angry that they plotted to kill him from his opening challenge about hand washing rules to raising Lazarus from the dead. As more people followed him around the country, he expanded the role of his disciples (twelve formed his inner circle, but many others traveled with him, including some women).  They were no longer merely students of this itinerant rabbi, but became teachers.

Luke’s telling of the Good Samaritan comes near the end of a long chapter that begins with Jesus sending out 72 followers to prepare the way for his future visits. They were to rely wholly on the generosity of the people they encountered for their physical needs and heal the sick among their hosts. Then Jesus launches into denouncing specific towns that will suffer the wrath of God for their unfaithfulness. The text doesn’t say how long the 72 were gone, but when they returned it was with excitement and joy at their successes, even banishing demons. Jesus reminded them that the spirits are subject only to God and that it was only by God’s power through them that miracles happened. Jesus then rejoiced in the power and will of God that allowed these mostly uneducated and marginalized followers to participate in God’s work. 

It’s important to consider what had just happened to visualize the setting of this parable fully. There had to be a crowd gathering around the 72 as they shared their experiences, and certainly religious leaders were among them, many of them hoping to find a way to discredit Jesus. Jesus spoke quietly to his disciples, telling them they were blessed to have witnessed the awesome power of God, something that the religious leaders craved for themselves but were denied. Out of the crowd, an expert in Mosaic law interrupted Jesus with a fairly common question for discussion, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded with his own question,“What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:26), to which the expert gave a theoretically correct answer: Love God and love your neighbor (Luke 10:27). But that wasn’t enough. The expert then challenged Jesus to define “neighbor,” a technical question based on conflicting interpretations of Leviticus 19, where the law describes neighbors first as fellow Israelites, and then as foreigners living among the Israelites. The expert was asking Jesus to debate one interpretation or the other, likely because the expert thought he could successfully argue for the one Jesus didn’t choose.

Jesus turned the expert’s question upside down with the parable of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho is a winding 18-mile trek along a wadi or stream bed and is still notoriously difficult to travel. In those days, it was a gold mine of opportunity for thieves, as wealthy people who had business in Jerusalem often lived in the resort town of Jericho and traveled that road often. Bandits would hide in caves along the route and attack unsuspecting and unprepared travelers. Traveling alone was never a good idea, yet this story discussed four: the victim and the three who saw him. Jesus knew priests and Levites in the crowd accompanied the expert in the law, so with one narrative, he illustrated how incomplete their understanding of God was. Priests and Levites may have had legitimate theoretical reasons for bypassing the wounded stranger, but theory and reality collide when Jesus is present. 

How did this parable get me thinking about American politics, neighbors, and enemies? 

While the direct audience for the challenge was powerful religious leaders, the case can be made that powerful politicians and religious leaders in modern America also meet the criteria for self-righteousness and excuses that leave the people on the road bruised and bleeding. It’s also possible that many Christians call on the government and churches to rescue the perishing. And it’s the diligent, faithful Christians who are often maligned in the press, institutions of higher learning, and places of power, but they are often the same people who show mercy to the hurting without being named.

The tribalism that has permeated the American political culture continues to trickle down to much of the population. We begin by focusing on our own busy lives, our personal interests, and the people in our social circles who share them. The focus becomes increasingly inward until we no longer see anyone who doesn’t share our beliefs, opinions, and activities. We become indifferent to anything that isn’t on our immediate agenda. Indifference begets distrust, distrust begets suspicion, and, before we know it, we live in echo chambers of our points of view. 

From the echo chambers, we easily fall into the culture wars that only serve to deepen the divide between us, all of us image-bearers of the Creator, yet convinced that we have the “right” or “best” knowledge of how to live. We treat those who approach the world and its challenges differently with animosity, calling them our enemies in actions, if not in words.

So, the question is still what do we do when we see someone from the “other” side who is hurt, maligned, and treated unjustly? Do we keep walking by, so busy with our own concerns and calendars that we hardly notice? Do we make excuses about the “other” either not worth our time or better helped by a government agency?  Or do we stop and show mercy through our differences? How do we respond to the news of the day? When brutal videos are impossible to avoid and social media spews news of violence against whoever thinks, looks, or acts differently than we think, act, and believe, do we ignore humanity or do we feel compassion? Are those who think differently invisible or enemies? Or are they neighbors, fellow image bearers of our Creator, deserving of mercy despite our differences?

1 thought on “American politics, neighbors, and enemies”

  1. Thank you for the thoughtful challenge and the invitation to heed Jesus’ call of humility. He has recently been convicting my busied, distracted spirit of how easily I become frustrated by inconvenience… and loving one’s neighbors is quite often inconvenient to our 21st century hearts.


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