The past few Sundays, in many Protestant and Catholic churches alike, congregants no doubt have heard their pastor’s or priest’s emotional retelling of the Good Samaritan as it relates to Syrian refugees. So what is this parable about? And what should be the Christian response to Trump’s executive order banning “entry into the U.S. by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days and … nearly all refugees for 120 days.”
As always, the legalities are more than meets the eye. The media, culture, and church bandy about terms like petulant schoolchildren. Political punches are thrown relentlessly from all sides and even literal punches from leftist radicals.
A myriad of power struggles continue: executive vs. judicial, protected vs. open borders, limited vs. limitless immigration, non-Muslim vs. Muslim, classical liberal vs. liberal, traditionalist vs. multiculturalist, conservative Christian vs. social-justice Evangelical (and Catholics and Jews, to be fair), thin libertarian vs. thick libertarian, and everything beyond and in between.
And people get emotional. Really emotional. And it can get really complicated really fast.
But for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to try keep this philosophical and theological, yet pragmatic and principled discussion simple. Easy enough, right? Keep it relevant, as they say.
So, let’s get back to the parable. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He responds by telling a story of a Jewish man going from Jerusalem to Jericho. The traveler is beaten, stripped, and left for dead.
Both a Jewish Priest and Levite willfully pass by him, refusing to help the desperate soul. It finally takes the good will of a Samaritan – whose people are enemies of the Jews and the Jews enemies of theirs – to aid the injured stranger.
Most Christians interpret the parable in one of two ways:
1. They see it as an allegory with the Samaritan symbolizing Jesus’ saving grace and mercy toward sinners, emphasizing Jesus as the healer of our fallen world.
2. They construe it literally, saying it’s an example of how Christians should live out Jesus’ compassion in practical, everyday terms. It’s this interpretation which is used by a majority of Evangelical leaders and laypeople when pushing for “welcoming the stranger” en masse and without hesitation or much forethought.
Anyone who demurs from the mainstream Christian methodology of how to solve this problem is roundly reprimanded. “If we are pro-life, we are pro-refugee” goes one line, implying, of course, that dissenters to the wide-open-borders approach must be anti-refugee and/or anti-life. Wow.
Other fervent accusations may include being pronounced Islamophobic to hateful, xenophobic to racist, not self-giving enough to even not saved, and too worldly to just too darn white. Even Pope Francis asserts that anyone who challenges the Christo-quo is supporting an “epidemic of animosity and violence.”
“We are to love them, to do good to them, to bless them and to pray for them,” explains Francis. And if his Biblical mandates do not manifest themselves by his and the other “interfaith” leaders’ terms, well, you just must be an apostate.
I only half-jokingly refer to this dogged demand for lock-step conformity on “social justice” matters as Christian Imperialism. Embrace our views (which almost always lean progressive) or be castigated by your fellow believers. If this is how the Church wants to promote unity, you can count me out.
But what if the Pope and mainline Evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on what a charitable heart really looks like? What if there are other ways, perhaps even better more Christ-like ways, to show compassion for both the displaced peoples and your fellow Christian? And what if there is yet another interpretation to the Good Samaritan?
As a 10-year Protestant now flirting with Orthodoxy, I think part of the rub (at least with Evangelicalism) is the belief in “Sola Scriptura,” which says the Bible alone is authoritative in the life and faith of a practicing Christian. It’s not that the Orthodox deny the tenet of Scripture being “God-breathed and … useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Rather, this ancient faith explains that it takes Scripture in conjunction with historical understanding, liturgy and church tradition, and the underpinnings of this virtually unchanged church to help a believer in truly becoming more like Christ.
As one of the main dogmas of Protestantism, “Sola Scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible,” argues James R. White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries. But when you have tens of thousands of divergent Scriptural interpretations, I’d say it’s subjectivity that indeed occurs.
After all, if I claim I have the Holy Spirit in believing one thing, yet you claim you’re Holy-Spirit filled in believing contrary on that issue, who’s right? It must be one of us because it sure ain’t the Holy Spirit who’s in error. Maybe we can both do our own thing, as long as we stick to the essentials of the Gospel.
So, the good-hearted effort in “rejecting any tradition or teaching that is not in full agreement with the Bible” simply becomes an interpretation of a particular denomination, or the doctrines of an independent church, or the ardent views held by an individual Christian. And that’s why Evangelical passions flare so dramatically over controversies like the refugee crisis.
“It’s our way or the highway!” But because of Sola Scriptura, there are innumerable highways, all leading to a very wide path, from which believers proclaim their morally superior judgements as truth. No wonder Protestantism has been continuously splintering since 1517.
“Taken from its context, within the Holy Tradition, the solid rock of Scripture becomes a mere ball of clay, to be molded into whatever shape its handlers wish to mold it,” explains Orthodox priest, Father John Whiteford. “It is no honor to the Scriptures to misuse and twist them, even if this is done in the name of exalting their authority.”
Now, I’m not saying that Orthodoxy is somehow immune to leftist interpretations of the Word. After all, I’m sure there are Orthodox Christians who lean progressive; they just don’t typically spend their time condemning believers who don’t.
Which brings us to a third way to look at the parable: yes, laud the Samaritan, but cast aspersion on the Levite and the Priest for passing by their brethren, leaving him to bleed out in the ditch. Maybe they should have stopped to help their own, instead of hurrying on their way to the temple, where they could get credit for helping folks deemed more worthy of charity.
Perhaps this is a life lesson in tending to your brothers and sisters in Christ, your family, your neighbors, your community, or your tribe first. So, maybe, just maybe it’s okay to have differing ideas about how to handle hot-button issues.
I discuss some divergent actions people can take in “Refugees, part 2: A ‘Social Gospel’ revival” and the history of immigration and its cultural ramifications in “Refugees, part 3: Jeffersonianism reinvigorated.”