By Rev. Dr. Mark Achtemeier
A great many people, religious and otherwise, affirm the fundamental goodness of helping people in need. But how far does this obligation to show compassion extend? When Donald Trump put in place his ban on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries, his action left many Christians wondering whether there is any religious duty to provide sanctuary and compassion to adherents of a foreign faith. Some Christian political and religious leaders have voiced support for Trump’s ban, suggesting that the Christian duty to care for the needy does not apply in this particular situation.
The Gospel of Luke recounts an episode where Jesus himself addresses this very same question about the limits of compassion. In Luke’s account, Jesus and a conversation partner, who is an expert in religious law, both quickly agree that loving our neighbors is a bedrock principle of religious faithfulness. But after agreeing on the duty to love our neighbors, the legal expert asks Jesus the very question that the president’s ban raises for American Christians: “But who is my neighbor?” How far does this obligation to show compassion extend?
Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question by telling a story, which we have since come to know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. At the center of Jesus’ tale is a man who has been the victim of a violent attack: A band of robbers has stripped a traveler of his clothes and possessions, beaten him senseless, and left him lying half dead on the side of the road.
In Jesus’ story the first person to happen upon the unfortunate traveler is a respected religious leader—a priest—who sees the man lying in the ditch but chooses not to get involved. The same thing happens a bit later when a Levite—another respected religious leader—happens upon the suffering stranger. In describing how these religious leaders pass by on the other side of the road, it almost seems as if Jesus was looking ahead in his story to our own time, when respected religious leaders would also be telling us to ignore the plight of refugees and victims of violence from today’s war-torn countries!
The story does not end on such a grim note, however. Jesus goes on to describe the actions of a Samaritan man who, coming across the robbery victim, acts with great compassion towards him.
The Samaritan binds up the man’s wounds, places him on his horse and carries him to an inn, where he pays for the innkeeper to look after him while he recovers. The Good Samaritan stands as a shining example across the centuries of the care and compassion that Jesus teaches his followers to practice.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a tale of a man who shows exemplary kindness, however. A deeper dimension of Jesus’ story comes to light when we understand who the Samaritans actually were. In the eyes of Jesus’ fellow citizens, the Samaritans were a tribe of hated foreigners who practiced a rival, heretical faith.
Jesus’ outrageous decision to lift up a despised Samaritan infidel as the moral hero of his story leaves no doubt that the love of neighbor Jesus has in mind is one that reaches out to people of foreign nations and foreign religions. Jesus’ type of neighbor-love does not stop at national or religious borders, and for this reason Jesus’ teaching stands in sharp opposition to the closed door and the clenched fist that characterize our president’s current policy.
Of course many Americans who support the immigration ban are not thinking so much about religious faithfulness; their support is more the product of simple fear. We live in a dangerous world, and people want to feel safe. Slamming the door on our Muslim neighbors may seem like a viable way to reduce the anxiety we live with from day to day, but practicing the kind of far-reaching neighbor-love which Jesus teaches may actually do a better job of helping us feel more secure.
Not many of us, it seems, are finding that the president’s ban makes us feel less anxious. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that less than one third of Americans feel the least bit safer as a result of the president’s action. The New Testament draws on Jesus’ teaching to suggest a very different remedy for our anxiety: “Perfect love casts out fear” is how Jesus’ disciple John puts it.
It is a question we Americans would do well to ponder: Does it really make us feel safer to hide behind walls and bans, to turn our backs on suffering and struggling peoples, to reject and despise those whose origins and beliefs are different from our own? Does turning our back on compassion really give us a greater sense of security?
Or is the path to a greater peace found in the kind of neighbor-love that reaches across dividing lines, that provides help to the refugee and the victim of violence, that binds up the wounds of the suffering and works to build an encompassing community of compassion and mutual help? Building friendship and community and common ties with people seems a better way of preventing them from harming us than does withholding compassion and erecting walls and bans against them.
No strategy will ever be foolproof, of course. Perfect safety is an illusion that no nation can ever guarantee to its citizens, and reasonable people may disagree over the proper balance to strike between freedom and generosity on the one hand, and security and safety on the other. For those of us who aspire to follow Jesus, however, we dare not let the present situation tempt us away from the expansive type of neighbor-love to which he calls us. We simply have to lift our voices and join the marches and protest to our representatives in opposition to the president’s immigration ban.