Commentary

Be not afraid

Originally Appeared in : 9910-5/9/19

As with many biblical parables, the story of the Good Samaritan is likely so familiar as to have lost its effect on us. In answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable of a Samaritan compassionately caring for a traveler who was robbed and left for dead. Two others, a priest and Levite, had passed by the suffering victim before the Samaritan stopped.

 

For many, the greatest lesson of this parable is to care for those we encounter who are suffering or otherwise in need. And that is a worthy lesson.

 

But a greater lesson and a lesson we clearly need now is that Jesus was teaching his followers to consider a Samaritan as their neighbor. In Jesus’s time, Samaritans were despised by the Jews as enemies.

 

This expansive definition of “neighbor” resounds in a time when we see the horrible consequences of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and religious hatred. From synagogues…to mosques…to Christian churches, worshipers are being targeted because of their religious beliefs and race. A growing resentment toward "difference” has begun to manifest itself in the social media posts, behavior, and too-frequent violence of those who demonize the “other.”

 

As Christians, we cannot, and we must not deem one group more worthy of our care and concern than another. How do we counter the demonization of those different from us? How do we put Christ’s teaching about acceptance and charity into our daily lives?

 

First, from a psychological standpoint, we must understand that it is part of our human nature to develop ties to a social group and to discriminate. According to a study published in May 2005 by Arizona State University (ASU) researchers in the "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” our ancestors, who were dependent upon group living for survival, were hard-wired to perceive outsiders as dangerous.

 

Steven Neuberg, ASU professor of social psychology, who authored the study with doctoral student Catherine Cottrell, reports: "It was adaptive for our ancestors to be attuned to those outside the group who posed threats such as to physical security, health or economic resources, and to respond to these different kinds of threats in ways tailored to have a good chance of reducing them."

 

Unfortunately, these same psychological tendencies to perceive danger in the “other” exist in us today and are often directed to members of groups who pose no threat to our well-being. Yet we perceive threats where none exist.

 

Researcher Cottrell says the study also reveals that "Groups are seen as posing threats to physical safety elicit fear and self-protective actions, while groups seen as choosing to take more than they give elicit anger and inclinations toward aggression. Groups are seen as posing health threats elicit disgust and the desire to avoid close physical contact.”
However, we are not doomed to discriminate even though it may be a natural inclination. The researchers assert that learning and environment can help us to overcome discrimination, anger, aggression, disgust, and avoidance.

 

But before we can learn to overcome our inclinations toward discrimination, we must become aware of them. Often, we are defensive and unwilling to acknowledge that we may be allowing fear, distrust, and anger to manipulate us. We rationalize our discrimination, prejudice, anger, and aggression by blaming the other, not looking inwardly.

 

Second, we must make a concerted effort to break outside of our social groups and experience life with people different from ourselves. In a time of gated communities and political, racial, and religious polarization, we may be reluctant to make the effort. But as Christians, we have an obligation to do so.

 

The Catholic Church has a diverse membership: people of all ages, races, and ethnicities. The Church also manifests diversity in socio-economic and immigration status. Parishes and dioceses must consider ways to bridge the divides among their own people. From my perspective, much work must be done in that regard.

 

Beyond that, we must learn to view our neighbor through the lens Jesus provided. Consider how those listeners to the parable of the Good Samaritan must have reacted when they heard it. In our current time, Jesus may have named the Good Samaritan the Good Muslim or the Good Illegal Immigrant. He would want us to acknowledge the group or person toward whom we may be most inclined to fear or resent, and to open our hearts.

 

Legitimate fear for our personal safety is different from the fear of the other that has been magnified and exploited by those who seek to divide us. But both fears feel the same until we recognize that our fears are not grounded in truth.

 

Jesus provides us the truth. It is our duty to see others through his eyes.

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com

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