The Parable of the Healthy Splagchnon

As I often say, psychology teaches us that political difference is fundamentally moral. The work of Jonathan Haidt on the moral mind shows that we orient, or are conditioned to orient, our moral compass around five central values, and that our attitudes toward these values are a powerful predictor of the way we are likely to feel about political, economic, and social issues.

Disagreements between American liberal and conservative camps tend to cluster around a few big ideas, opportunistic clashes of underlying moral values. When it comes to the welfare state, for example, liberals accuse conservatives of lacking compassion, while conservatives criticize liberals for lacking common sense. To a liberal the rich are exploitative and greedy, to the conservative they are entitled to earned wealth and drive the economy through the investment of that wealth. Left, “the rich unfairly despise the poor”; right, “the poor unfairly resent the rich.”

By telling ourselves these stories (on both sides) we depict a moral battle between heroes and villains, making it very easy to justify our own position. A lot of this is nonsense: income, as it turns out, is a relatively poor predictor of support for welfare. This 1998 Gallup survey shows that of respondents with household incomes above $150k/yr (who expect their lives to improve in the next five years), 24% believe the government should “redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,” and 67% believe that the “government in Washington, DC, should make every possible effort to improve the social and economic position of the poor.”

To the contrary, among respondents with incomes of $10k/yr or less (who do not expect their lives to improve within five years), 32% believe the government should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich, and 23% believe the poor should help themselves rather than the government. In other words, there are many wealthy people who support re-distributive welfare, and many poor people who oppose it. Fong, Bowles, and Gintis report a much better predictor of support for welfare in “Reciprocity and the Welfare State” (from 2005 book Moral Sentiments and Material Interests):

“Abundant evidence from across the social sciences… has shown that when people blame the poor for their poverty, they support less redistribution than when they believe that the poor are poor through no fault of their own. That is, generosity toward the poor is conditional on the belief that the poor work hard. (Williamson 1974; Heclo 1986; Farkas and Robinson 1996; Gilens 1999; Miller 1999).”

The lesson here, in a broad sense, is that our attitudes and behaviors toward others is motivated by what we believe about them. Because there are no statistics for work ethic among the poor and no way to measure how many welfare recipients are “just lazy” or cheating the system, our support for welfare is informed by life experience, consumed media, and beliefs about human nature.

This central piece of the welfare puzzle is also a central tenet of the real gospel. We sense this in an intuitive way: being a “Good Samaritan” is coded into our language as a shorthand for charity, a socially admirable behavior, yet it is often politically conservative Christians who oppose re-distributive welfare on various grounds. In A Secular Age, the incomparable Charles Taylor makes the case for a different, and more poignant, interpretation of the classic parable of the Good Samaritan.

We know the story. Jesus sums up the law in two commandments: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. A scribe asks Jesus: “but who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with a story about a man beaten and left for dead by robbers. A priest and a Levite, important figures to the Jewish community, walk past, but a Samaritan — a despised outsider — stops to help the man, bandage him, and take him to a nearby inn to recover at the Samaritan’s own expense of two days’ wages plus extra.

As Taylor notes, we place this story into a particular category: moral rules. This reading is not quite wrong, but it misses the point. Some understanding of Greek and historical context makes the story bloom.

The feud between the Jews and Samaritans was an ancient, and very racial, one. Originally a separated sect of Jews from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (according to Samaritan tradition), 2 Kings 17 details the emergence of a syncretistic religion that blended Judaism and the worship of Yahweh with other pagan deities by settlers of Samaria returning from Syrian exile. This was despicable to Jews. In one interpretation of Ezra 4 it is Samaritans who offer to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, and are rejected by the Jews. Nehemiah exiles the grandson of a high priest for marrying the daughter of a Samaritan governor.

We do know that by around 167 BC the feud was so strong that the Samaritans sided with the Seleucids, under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Josephus records in The Antiquities of the Jews that Samaritan men would enter the Jewish temple in secret, scattering human bones to desecrate it. Thus is prompted the commentary by the author of John in the fourth chapter of his gospel: “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”

So here lies the man on the road, beaten within an inch of his life. The priest and the Levite see him and realize that helping him presents a threat of ceremonial defilement (contact with bodily fluids): they cross the road to pass on the other side. It is the Samaritan who arrives and feels compassion and pity toward the man — in the Greek, splagchnizomai (σπλαγχνίζομαι).

There are a few Greek words for compassion and pity. Sumpathès (συμπαθές), from where we get the English word “sympathy,” is a great one and would be closer to how we read the story today. The author of Luke has a different agenda. Splagchnizomai is derived from a similar Greek word that sounds like the name of a body part you should cover in polite company: splagchnon (σπλάγχνων). Strictly speaking, splagchnon refers to “inward parts” or “bowels” but its use in Greek also refers to “inmost feelings” or “the seat of the emotions.”

Your splagchnon is the depth of human sentiment: thus, to feel splagchnizomai is to feel a compassion that rises from the deepest parts of your being. It’s the difference between feeling compassion and being moved by compassion.

This kind of compassion, in the story, breaks down two important barriers: the racial divide between Jew and Samaritan, and the distinction between sacred and profane. The priest and the Levite are not necessarily amoral, and we don’t have to conclude that they believe that the needy are undeserving of charity. They just have other priorities that stem from their beliefs about the man in the road. He’s not a human who needs help, he’s a body that is a source of ceremonial pollution. “Someone else will come along,” we can hear them say.

We come to understand that the story is not an illustration of moral “ought-to” but rather a depiction of the power of, to borrow a phrase that NT Wright uses extensively, genuine humanness. The Samaritan, most likely to be viewed by first century Jews as sub-human, illustrates genuine humanness in allowing himself to be moved by splagchnizomai, and in offering his help affirms the genuine humanness of the beaten man. The humanity in the Samaritan connects with the humanity in the man in the road. It is their piety, ironically, that prevents the priest and Levite from realizing this truth.

The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas teaches this lesson a different way:

(They saw) a Samaritan carrying a lamb on his way to Judea. [Jesus] said to his disciples, “That one is going around with the lamb.” They said to him, “It is so he can kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “While it is living he will not eat it but only if he kills it and it becomes a corpse.”

Gospel of Thomas, Logion 60

To clear this up for our purposes we might say:

While he believes it is living he will not eat it, but only if he believes it is a corpse.

To exploit or harm another person, we must make allowances in the way that we view them. Our beliefs and attitudes about people allow us to justify behaviors toward them. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 teaches, in so many words, that to violate the golden rule and treat someone in a way that we would not want to be treated, we have to rob them of a little of their humanity: kill them, in a way, as Jesus teaches in this saying from Thomas.

If I believe a person is pollutant, I justify crossing the road and passing by on the other side — on the way to church even! If I believe the poor are “just lazy,” I justify withholding welfare from them. If I believe women are inferior to men, I justify treating them as inferior to men. If I believe Muslims are wicked and worship a doctrine of demons, I justify unloving prejudice against them. If I believe a popular football player is being a whiny bitch about the treatment of blacks in America, I justify my foul attitude toward his honest expression of human suffering. A modern version of this parable might be called “The Parable of the Good Muslim” or “the Good Snowflake” or “the Good Homosexual.”

But if I believe a person is human the way that I am human — that they think of themselves as “I” in exactly the same way that I think of myself as “I” — that they want to do good just as I want to do good, albeit in the best way that they know how as opposed to the best way that I know how — that they experience suffering, of any kind, the way I experience suffering  that’s what it means to live from my gut, my splagchnon. That’s the source of real compassion.

With this in mind, I find it impossible to support public policy rooted in anything shy of life-affirming genuine humanness. Our attitudes toward healthcare, welfare, immigrants, refugees, minorities, LGBTQ, and so on should become crystal clear. I can’t support a Supreme Court nominee with a history of immense callousness toward the common man. I can’t support a President who says, well, you remember.

Jesus fed people before he taught them. Sinners were saved by faith: while the obsessive rule-based piety of the rich young ruler was not enough. It was only after he told her, “Neither do I condemn you,” that Jesus told the adulteress, “go and sin no more.” The old joke goes that feminism is the radical idea that women are people too. In a way, the gospels are even more ironic: they teach the radical idea that people are people too.

Further reading:

  1. A Secular Age Chapter 20 Conversions, Section 2, Charles Taylor, 2007.

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