One of the last things we did during our recent trip to Damascus was to meet with Dr Nabil Toumeh – a member of the Syrian Parliament and advisor to the International Human Rights Commission.
Dr Toumeh’s Ph.D studies must have been in the area of the sociology of religion as he certainly knew a lot about the subject, and at one stage produced a couple of enormous charts that visually graphed the history of religions across the globe.
Our group was impressed with Dr Toumeh’s learning and with these charts that compared Christianity and Islam and a variety of other religions, tracking their global influence over the centuries. If we’d been thinking that our version of religion was the only show in town, these charts would have given us a sobering corrective.
I’m not sure exactly what response Dr Toumeh expected from us. My response was that these charts covered only one dimension of religion – namely, the tribal side. They said nothing about the evolution of religious belief, and they could, of course, say nothing about the spiritual integrity of religious believers.
I shared a little with Dr Toumeh the basic thesis of my soon-to-be-published book in which I suggest that every religion has two sides to it – a tribal/identity side and a belief side – and that while it is important for believers to know their tribe, it’s also the tribal side of religion that generates prejudice and violence, and fuels wars!
“Religion is the opiate of the masses”, Karl Marx famously said, but it’s not religious beliefs as such that start wars. It’s the belief that my religious tribe is superior to your religious tribe and, indeed, that your religious tribe are a bunch of heretics!
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” So Jesus told him a joke …
A Jewish guy and a Chinese guy walk into a bar …
OK, it wasn’t that one, and I’m not going to tell you that joke today as you probably remember it from the last time I peached on this passage. If you missed it, look up the last sermon on www.fatherdave.com.au. Yes, it is, predictably, a joke that plays off racial stereotypes, and even if you’re not familiar with that particular joke, you are undoubtedly familiar with the genre – Irish jokes, Polish jokes, Australian jokes …
Yes, I do remember comedian Dave Allen telling an Australian joke. He said he’d been warned before how came here that Australians were difficult people, yet he found them the be the most generous and hospitable people he’d ever met. He added, “it was only the white bastards I couldn’t get on with”.
Telling racial jokes like these are generally another means through which we reinforce tribal identity (racial tribal identity in this case) and such jokes always require that the members of the group we are making fun of be all the same.
I read a fascinating book about this phenomenon recently – a book called “Tribes” by Seth Godin – which introduced me to the term ‘outgroup homogeneity’.
‘Outgroup homogeneity’ means that when it comes to the ‘other’ group (whatever ‘other’ that might be – other religion, other race, etc.) they are basically all the same.
I remember one study quoted in the book looked at the perception university students had of elderly people in a retirement village, compared to the view these people had of themselves.
According to the book, the retired people saw their community has being made up of a rich variety of people from various backgrounds, cultures, religious groups and political persuasions. The university students saw them as being all the same – frail and fearful, overly religious and politically conservative.
When the study looked at what the perception of the university students was, the stereotypes turned out to be just as strong in reverse. While the students saw themselves as a diverse and multi-faceted community, the elderly group saw them all as being loud and licentious and politically liberal.
The term is ‘outgroup homogeneity’. Our group is rich and diverse. The ‘other’ group are all the same, like those conservative evangelical churches that are all made up of people who hate LGBTI people and oppress women – all of them!
Of course, Jesus’ joke isn’t about conservative Evangelicals any more than it is about the Irish. It’s about Samaritans, and we all know what Samaritans were like. They’re all the same – lazy, dishonest, ignorant, and, religiously speaking, heretical!
“A [Jewish] man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.” (Luke10:30-33)
“As if!” I hear you say! ‘As if a Samaritan would stop for a wounded Jew out of pity? If a Samaritan stops near the prostrate body of a Jew, it’s to check if he has money in his pockets! We know what these people are like, and they’re all the same!’
I guess that’s why Jesus goes on to fill in the details of His story, lest we fill them in with our imagination.
“[The Samaritan] went to [the injured Jew] and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’” (Luke 10:34-35)
This is an offensive story because we all know that a Samaritan wouldn’t do that. We know what they are like. They aren’t the sort of persons who care about us.
We’ve heard of plenty of stories like this, of course – true stories – but they generally have the Samaritans playing the role of the robbers who beat up on the defenceless Jew and not the other way around. Of course, this is just a story!
That’s the weakness of Jesus’ joke, of course, or at least it seems to be. It’s a story about a Samaritan who doesn’t perform in accordance with the stereotype we constructed for him. Even so, it’s just a story and we’ve got no reason to believe that it was a true story. Do Samaritans ever really behave like that? None that I know of!
If we feel tempted to think that way, it shows that we didn’t actually get the joke, which is not really a joke about Samaritans but it’s one where the joke is on us!
It easy to miss the punchline in this joke as it actually comes quite early in the story!
“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.” (Luke 10:31-32)
I know we covered that part of the story already, but were you offended by it?
I remember, as a youth, being brought up in the church and listening to sermons on this passage where the preacher would often speculate at this point of the story as to why the good guys – the priest and the Levite – would pass by on the other side.
After all, priests and Levites are a part of our tribe. They are one of us (or two of us) and they are exactly the persons we would expect to stop and help one of us if one of us where in trouble. And so preachers speculate:
- Perhaps the priest was late for his synagogue service?
- Perhaps they were worried that the man was dead, meaning that they would be rendered ritually unclean if they touched the dead man’s body?
- Perhaps they were concerned that the robbers who assaulted the man were lying in wait for another victim? It was my friend Stephen Sizer (an Anglican priest in London) who pointed out to me that Jesus actually makes it quite clear why these two avoid the injured man. Indeed, it’s stated quite explicitly in the opening words of the joke. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” The robbers left the man naked and half-dead (in other words, unconscious), meaning that the priest and Levite couldn’t see his clothing nor hear his accent. They therefore had no way of knowing whether he was one of us or one of them! This is how we distinguish between us and them. We discriminate on the basis of the way we dress and the way we speak. When someone says “G’day mate!”, he’s one of us! When someone speaks with a ‘funny’ accent, she’s one of them! When you see someone wearing a hijab, she’s one of them, and when you see a guy with a big, square beard, you know he’s one of them – a Muslim (or maybe a hipster). I do have a problem with my stereotypes in that area. How many times have I been about to say ‘Salam Aleykum’ to someone with a great big beard when I’ve noticed that they’re drinking beer … out of a jar!
Even so, this is the way, and it’s generally the only way, that we can tell whether somebody is one of us or one of them – by looking at the way they dress and by listening to the way they speak.
In Jesus’ joke, in the case of the injured man, the priest and the Levite don’t stop because the man was naked and unconscious. They couldn’t tell whether he was one of us or one of them, and the bottom line is, if he is not one of us then he is not our responsibility! The shocking thing about the Samaritan in this story then is not simply that he is an impossibly nice guy who doesn’t fit his racial stereotype. It’s rather that he himself is one who doesn’t pay attention to these stereotypes! He just doesn’t play that game.
The Samaritan doesn’t stop feeling responsible for someone just because they belong to the other team. He doesn’t care whether the injured guy is one of his own! He doesn’t care whether he’s a Jew or an Arab, and obviously Jesus doesn’t care either! Perhaps you thought that the “no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free” thinking started with St Paul. No! It all starts here, in the jokes of Jesus!
I know some of you are disappointed that I’m not telling you the one about the Jewish and the Chinese guy in the bar, so let me offer you a different joke.
There’s a guy about to throw himself off a bridge and a woman sees him and rushes over to him, saying “don’t do it. You have so much to live for!”
The guy on the edge of the bridge says, “like what?” and she says, “well, are you a religious person?” and he says “yes” and she says “Great! So am I”
She says, “are you a Christian or a Muslim or something else?” He says, “Well … I’m Anglican”, and she says “Hey! That’s great! So am I”
She says, “are you a high Anglo-Catholic or from the low end of Anglicanism?” and he says, “I’m a low-church evangelical” and she says “Wow! I am too!”
She says, “Are you from the liberal, inclusive end of evangelical Anglicanism or from the more conservative end?” He says, “I guess you’d call me a conservative”.
She rushes over and pushes him off the bridge, yelling “die, heretic, die!”
I told that joke to Dr Toumeh in Damascus too. I couldn’t tell whether he liked the joke, nor whether he agreed with my thoughts on the dangers of religious tribalism. He did offer to publish my book in Arabic though, and I took that as a good sign.
Jesus’ joke comes in response to a specific question – “who is my neighbour?” The obvious answer to that question was, ‘Your neighbour is your fellow Jew, your fellow Australian, your fellow Christian, your fellow low-church, liberal, inclusive Anglican.”
The point of the question of was to get clarity over where our responsibility to love stops. It stops with our own tribe, surely? So Jesus told him a story about a man who didn’t pay any attention to tribal boundaries and didn’t know when to stop.
‘Go and do likewise’ Jesus says, and in case you misunderstood the punchline, the challenge is not simply to go find another injured guy and put him on your donkey. The challenge is to do what the Samaritan does and to move beyond the distinction between us and them!
First preached by Father Dave, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday July 14th, 2019.