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The Good Samaritan arrives early

Among my statements that were included in the film "Soldiers of Conscience," my thought experiment about the Good Samaritan has evoked the most passionate feedback.

Some people have found it very helpful as a metaphor that expresses their moral sense that even good Christians must sometimes engage in violent acts in defense of themselves or others.

Conversely, some have taken offense. A person I'll refer to as TJ, a Methodist pastor, expressed his reaction in an email to me:

"First, please do not continue insult the story of the good samaritan by your interpretation. ...You are as ill-equipped to discuss theology, and especially in such a repulsive way, as I am to discuss military combat strategy...Your profile lists your interests to include faith and ethics. That, sir, may look good on your profile, but you and I both know that ethics and morals go out the window in war. To say otherwise... is insulting to the intelligence of all people who have ethics and morals in their lives...You should be ashamed. I will assume you are not."

For the record, all my work is based on my conviction that ethics and morals do NOT "go out the window in war." They are challenged by war's difficult circumstances, of course, but we must not respond to that challenge by quitting and giving in to evil; rather, we should redouble our efforts to prepare ourselves and create systems that empower moral behavior in combat. But I digress.

My insight on the Good Samaritan emerged from a conversation with a pacifist who was arguing that Jesus calls us to love, not to fight; that He calls us "to be like the Good Samaritan." The pacifist was assuming that someone who would kill someone who was attemping to kill the innocent is not someone who would help a beaten victim along the street, as it it were an either/or proposition.

I responded, "If I found a person left for dead along the road, I like to think that I would stop and render aid, just like the Good Samaritan. But if I found someone being beaten by robbers, I like to think that I would protect him by stopping the attack, even if I had to beat the hell out of the robbers. And I think the Good Samaritan would have done the same."

So, here's the thought experiment. What would the Good Samaritan--an exemplar given to us by Christ of a person who loves his neighbor--do if he had arrived at the scene earlier, while the robbers were assaulting the man?

1. Would the Good Samaritan walk on by?
2. Would the Good Samaritan stop and wait, allowing the beating to continue, and hope that the victim survived?
3. Would the Good Samaritan rush to find someone else to stop the beating?
4. Or, would the Good Samaritan risk his own safety to stop the attack and protect the victim, using violence as necessary?

When we look at it this way, I think it's pretty clear that the loving, decent, honorable, courageous, and Christian thing to do is to stop the attack.

After all, Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I know that if I were ever being beaten mercilessly, I would fight back, and I would want any passerby to join in my defense. So, I will do the same for others.

I welcome and invite any feedback that focuses on the merits of the argument.


RJO said…
I have neither military nor theological credentials, but I think your analysis is correct. Rev. Parrish is certainly wrong that ethics and morals go out the window in war, otherwise there would be no such thing as a war crime, or rules of engagement, or any of a number of other principles. "War" encompasses far more than killing, and even if one were to believe that killing is in every case immoral, there would still be a great deal of territory for moral and ethical principles to play themselves out in "war" (sensu lato).

The story of the Good Samaritan is set up in such a way that it doesn't address the question of how one ought to have confronted the violence at the time it occurred. While "turn the other cheek" might be a principle one can apply to oneself, it is also said that "greater love hath no man than this: that he should lay down his life for his friend." It is certainly easy to see how such a principle could come into play in the active resistance to violence against a third party.

The story of the Good Samaritan has in many ways become dead to us because it is so familiar and because its cultural context is so remote. E.E. Cummings breathed some new life into it in one of his most famous poems:

a man who had fallen among thieves
lay by the roadside on his back
dressed in fifteenthrate ideas
wearing a round jeer for a hat

fate per a somewhat more than less
emancipated evening
had in return for consciousness
endowed him with a changeless grin

whereon a dozen staunch and leal
citizens did graze at pause
then fired by hypercivic zeal
sought newer pastures or because

swaddled with a frozen brook
of pinkest vomit out of eyes
which noticed nobody he looked
as if he did not care to rise

one hand did nothing on the vest
its wideflung friend clenched weakly dirt
while the mute trouserfly confessed
a button solemnly inert.

Brushing from whom the stiffened puke
i put him all into my arms
and staggered banged with terror through
a million billion trillion stars
Anonymous said…
Excellent post. I would assist the fallen prayerfully. What I mean is this. I would jump in and help the person being attacked. While doing so I hope that I would be speaking with God, asking him to guide and direct me and asking for his blessing upon what I was doing........prayer can change things. The subsequent change may come in the form of "the robbers running from me and not being killed, along with blessing to the rescue itself".

Love the e.e.cummings poem as response!

Chaplain Lewis said…
As an Army Chaplain, I am equipped to discuss both theology and military combat strategy (albeit the latter is not my forte). Still I think I can say from first hand experience in both arenas that the idea that "ethics and morals go out the window in war" is little more than silliness and intellectually lazy. It is far easier to rest on the laurels of theological and intellectual antiquity than it is to attempt to think outside the box and apply the lessons of scripture to modernity.

As I read your analysis, I am reminded of another Bible story, wherein an individual came upon a bully beating up his latest victim and did something about it, to great effect (theologically and militarily). In fact, the bully was violently killed. Still, I've yet to find a voice in church or civil history that decries that killing as either unethical or immoral. Ever heard of David and Goliath?

Thanks for the fresh thinking.
Christopher Smith said…
I’m glad you posted this.

I won’t weigh in on competing interpretations of the Good Samaritan. One thing did catch my eye, though, was Rev. Parrish’s assertion that you are “…ill-equipped to discuss theology” and that he himself is not qualified to opine on military combat strategy.

This is wrong-headed. In fact, I believe this attitude to be at the core of deteriorating public debate on ethics, politics, and other important issues.

Too many religious leaders, in my opinion, view matters of faith as being too complicated for lay people to understand. It’s not just that thinking is discouraged; they actually make an argument that the average American is not intellectually equipped to discuss and debate matters of faith and the resulting implications in applied ethics. Politicians do the same.

We as American citizens are collectively responsible for the actions that our country takes. The foundation of our society is weakened when ordinary Americans leave the big questions to “the experts.” Not only are we capable of grappling with these ideas, we have a responsibility to do so.
Anonymous said…
There's a good argument to be made for finding someone else to stop the beating, if the original good samaritan is ill-equipped for violence, outnumbered. I wouldn't fault anyone for picking option 3 instead of option 4, although if you are able, direct and immediate action will certainly benefit the victim more than calling 911 from a cell phone. (I would make the phone call while looking for a weapon of opportunity; but the reality is, I am smaller than most people who commit strong-armed robbery and follow it up with battery.)

FWIW, 1st century conditions left a lot more need for self-help in such situations than 21st century American circumstances. Although - RJO - the parable answers the question 'What's a neighbor,' by saying 'Your neighnbor is precisely that guy from the wrong side of the mountain (tracks, town, whatever) with whom you have ethnic and doctrinal differences.' If it's familiarity has made it dead to us, it's because we've been blind about its application - from civil rights to various ethnicity-and-religion fueled conflicts, you know, EVERYWHERE.

Rev Parrish's freedom to ignorantly slander all warriors depends on those very warriors to uphold the constitution which asserts and protects his rights. He's unaware of reality, if he thinks that he is free to worship, write, and speak as he pleases solely because of the civic and religious virtues of citizens in peacetime. When he sees a WWII vet, does he say thank you, as he should, or does he think he is looking at Satan?
What does he think of police officers, and their occasional need to use violence?

I can see someone being religiously uncomfortable with using or reworking a parable of Christ's in a manner in which He didn't intend it - and if that were what the Rev had said, I'd have a little sympathy. On the other hand, aside from his ignorance about war, the Rev is dead wrong if he thinks that Christians aren't supposed to be applying Jesus' teachings to all the circumstances of our lives. Or if he thinks (as is implied) that Christians, or anyone desirous of serving the Good, can't serve in the military.

Christopher - cogent point about the abuse of the concept of expertise in our society. I think it goes the other way, too - there are large segments that decide that the 'experts are lying' - buy the snake oil that the 'medical establishment doesn't want you to know about,' etc. There are areas where we should respect the knowledge of those who have studied for years - and areas, wherein, even if we aren't the 'duty expert' we have a responsibility to engage the concepts as best we can.

S. Murphy
SteveA said…
What if the Samaritan had arrived earlier on the scene of the robbery, you wonder?

Jesus would tell the story according to what he preached. The summary of all that he preached is in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus seemed to have a clever, nonstandard answer to every problem. In this case, I think he would have the Samaritan put himself between the two and ask the robber what he was after—and would give it to the robber from his own pocket.

Matthew 5:40 -- "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.”

But the story wasn’t about robbery or violence at all, but about getting along with religious rivals, and the people of Jesus’ day would have known that, though it escapes us today. Jesus was asked, who is my neighbor? And his response was one of the hated race of people living in same land, but who were not even talked to by the Jews. The Samaritans say they were distant relatives of the Jews, and a split occurred after the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 721BC. They built their own temple on Mt Gerizim in 330BC, and they have probably undergone more persecution than he Jews through history.

About the summary of Jesus’ great sermons? They end with: Love your enemy and pray for him. When is the last time you heard a minister recommend that? I can’t remember hearing it in 50 years of practicing Christianity, though I’ve never been in the military.
Anonymous said…

I have heard a homily that included a recommendation to pray for our enemies, by a Catholic chaplain in Iraq. I've also heard that form of loving one's neighbor discussed bt a civilian priest in the US. I particularly remember it, because he said "ya gotta have 'em to love 'em." I've heard loving your neighbor more generally mentioned quite a bit, as I'm sure you have. I wonder if it's a sort of societal focus - that we don't want to categorize people as 'enemies?'. So maybe a priest or preacher will more likely talk about how you shouldn't hate than about how to treat an individual who hates you. Perhaps missing the opportunity to point out that when you have truly been wronged, forgiveness involves more grace than when we are merely forgiving a mistake.
In the military, if we love our enemy, in practical terms, when we capture him, we treat him like a human being.
Jesus intervened as you described, with the woman taken in adultery.He didn't reward the aggressors: he embarrassed them. However, those men weren't lawless, and as you note, the story if the Good Samaritan answers the question 'what's a neighbor?' rather than offering a
tactical/ethical decision game on reacting to robbers.
He says to forgive personal wrongs; I don't see that advocates allowing an innocent to be harmed, rather than interfering with an aggressor.

S. Murphy
dcrowe said…
You're limiting options in your multiple choice scenario. You at least need to bifurcate #4.

4) Would the good Samaritan risk his own safety to stop the attack by putting his body in the way?

5) Would the good Samaritan use violence against the attacker?

But beyond that, this isn't a legitimate way to do ethics. The story of the good Samaritan is specifically about breaking boundaries and taboos to show Christ's love for others. You're given all the relevant information you need to understand what Christ is getting at. However, this thought experiment is about something else entirely: whether violence is a legitimate way of participating in the scenario for a Christian.

Your thought experiment will only get you pat answers from folks because it gives such limited information. I'd suggest this link as a good response to this kind of experiment:
Pete said…

Can you say more about why this isn't a "legitimate way to do ethics"?

Would it be because it asks the readers to make a decision--to act?

I find that pacifists typically like to examine morality abstactly. To the Good Samaritan thought experiment, they respond with what they would NOT do. "Well, I would certainly not use violence!"

To which I ask, "Well, what would you do? Yes, the situation stinks; it's been forced upon you by the actions of bad people. Still, you have to do something!"

Inaction, in this case, is an action. It is a decision to allow someone to be beaten and possibly killed.

To allow preventable harm to someone may be as morally wrong as to inflict the harm.

For example, if a baby is lying in a street, and a car is rolling towards the baby, and you could carry the baby to safety but chose not to, you made a morally wrong choice. Your choice to do nothing--to not get involved--was a moral choice that had consequences.

So, I ask you, dcrowe and other readers, what would YOU DO if you're walking down a remote road and you see someone being brutally beaten and raped by three men?

(If you're going to say, "I'd put myself between the victim and the attackers," then please provide a description of how that would likely play out. For example, would you really expect that the murderous rapists would see you coming to hug the victim and say, "Oh my gosh, someone is passively putting herself next to our victim! Let's flee!"?)
dcrowe said…
Hey Pete:

First of all, thanks for stopping by my blog. :)

Second, I'd just reiterate the link I posted in my above comment instead of attempting to rewrite the entire thing. Listen and let me know what you think. And please avoid attempting to twist my response into passivity. Doing nothing in a situation where you see someone being hurt is never an option and I never said do nothing. What I rejected was the notion that the only thing to do in that situation was to be violent.

The reason I say this isn't a legitimate way to do ethics is that the scenario is intentionally limited by you to omit any information that might assist someone in coming to any conclusion other than the conclusion you'd like. Someone acting on more (or less) complete information, or who has developed habits of thought and perception that differ from yours will find options other than those you limit by crafting this scenario.

But see, now I'm doing what I said I wouldn't do...typing out the information in the audio file I linked above. I'll spare you the repeat information. Cheers!
dcrowe said…
Sorry for the second comment, but I deleted something I meant to leave:

To flesh out a little bit why this is a bogus way to figure out the correct thing to do:

This setup becomes invalid the moment I arrive on the scene to observe it. Does the assailant notice me? Does he continue his attack, despite the fact that it's now two on one? My presence in the first place might end the assault now that the odds have changed.

Does the fact that I'm striding right at the fight change the passivity of anyone else on the road? Do I break the attacker's intimidation of other people just passing by through my inability to be cowed?

Do I recognize him?

Or, when I stand up to him and tell him to stop, is it 10 of his friends who were hiding in the bushes vs. two of us now? Now the only way me and the victim survive is if we find a way to not cause them to kill us in the process of robbing us. Slapping one of these seems like a bad idea, right?

How wounded is the man? Is he hurt so badly he can't flee? Is he only just now in the process of getting beaten up? Has the assault started or is it about to start? These are important facts to know.

But let's play the game your way and take this all the way. I am a Christian. I see a man attacking another person. No not-violent action will sway this person (I reject this premise, but whatever). I must put myself in the way of the attacks and let myself be murdered in order to give the other person a chance to escape. It's really not complicated. And when you die, you die for both your neighbor and this enemy. And that's called being a Christian.
Anonymous said…
You haven't proven that the thought-experiment with the Good Samaritan's scenario is illegimate: you haven't even tried to do so. Why not?
The fact that in real life, there will be all sorts of factors that aren't addressed here, is beside the point. Looking at potential circumstances simply leads to tactical and moral decisions about the appropriate level of force to use -- from assertive tone and body language to serious bodily harm -- to stop the robbers from beating the victim. It doesn't change the fact that (as you agree the passer-by has an obligation to intervene; nor does it change the fact that they may not stop without being forced to stop. You may be right that it doesn't help us prove one way or the other that using physical, rather than more force, is a legitimate way to help the situation. It doesn't have to. This is common sense. Christian Just War theory - just use of force theory - began when Christians realized the second coming wouldn't be next week, and they were going to have to run a civilization in the meantime. Your suggestion, applied to an entire police force, would lead to hordes of successful, and repeatedly offending, violent strong-armed robbers, batterers, and murderers.
Sacrificing your life for another is holy and generous; but in allowing the robbers to succeed, you might encourage them (they killed TWO people: they not only passed their gang initiation, they scored extra status points) you do their souls no good, and you really screw their next victims. If, on the other hand, you intimidate, bluff, use submission holds/takedowns, or control the situation with a firearm and standoff distance - anyway, stop the beating, and take the thugs into custody - you give them time and opportunity to rethink their behavior. They may not take advantage of it, but if not, at least that road will be safe for the next merchant, while they're in jail.
Deadly force is a last resort. So is martyrdom - cf St Thomas More.

S. Murphy
donb505 said…
I like the analogy you gave coming from your point of view as being attacked. As I would want someone to help me if I was being attacked. One thing we don't know is who the individual being attacked is. What if the attackers feel as if they are justified. Again, is it our responsibility to punish those who have justice waiting for them at judgement day. Its a hard one to call. Im glad you wrote this.
seller said…
good article,
I really liked how the author picked up the opinion a very good story.
The author write more!
Anonymous said…
Another analogy I like to use in these sorts of debates is the existence of the "rational Nazi." It's a thought experiment asking the question: could Hitler or another tyrant be convinced of the error of his ways through rational dialogue?

The real question behind this experiment is whether there is a universal truth that can be discovered through rational moral thought.

If, like me, you come to the conclusion that Hitler likely could NOT have been convinced to stop the holocaust, you realize that sometimes in life you will be confronted by terribly horrific acts, and you will be given a choice, and it's only one choice - use violence or permit a terrible act to occur.

That is the moral conundrum that the blog poster here is attempting to deal with.

For those who advocate merely putting themselves in harm way like a good Christian, the flaw in that reasoning is the assumption that your sacrifice will actually save the original victim, rather than simply causing your own death, and then the death of the other victim moments later.

The problem with pacifism is that it does not always work. Peaceful sit-ins and human shields do not stop those who are not morally rational. Although Ghondi was a great man who showed the power of passive resistance, if he and the rest of the world simply protested, Hitler would not have been stopped.

Finally, whenever thinking about moral issues, I like to ask what I would do if the person in need was my family member, a daughter, a neice.

If I came upon my daughter being attacked, and it was clear (or pretty darn probable) that her attacker wont be swayed by reason, wont be detered by me acting as a human shield, what should I do? What would a moral soul do?

I cannot imagine a god worth worshipping who would condemn me for protecting her.

And then what is the difference if its someone else's daughter, neice, son or wife?
Anonymous said…
The last post by Anonymous (a lot of us here, hehe), is most appreciated.

And I think sir/madam you've hit the nail RIGHT on the head.

I've had conversations with pacifists (although I think that they may not be using the term correctly) frequently denounce violence as an answer.

Half-right: violence should not be the answer for everything, or when peaceful resolution is still possible or feasible.

They tend to stop short of committing to the statement that it should be committed when peaceful resolution is NOT possible OR feasible, and will lead to the death of an innocent.

Real life example of Pete's 10-Minute-Early thought experiment.

I used to volunteer as a Range Safety Officer for a private firearms instructor; this is his story:

He was taking a young assistant instructor of ours to a local Bank of America in Tempe, AZ a few years ago. The young man was going into the Air Force and shipping out to Basic soon, and needed a bank account to transfer money to when he left.

As they approached outside this bank, they saw a fight breaking out between two people, a big guy and a smaller, but more aggressive person. As things heated up, the big guy backpedaled his way right onto his ass when his heel hit the sidewalk.

As soon as he was down, the little guy straddled his chest and started beating him to death. They could see him taking his head in his hands and cracking the back of his skull against the sidewalk like he was trying to open a coconut... he was succeeding.

There were about 12 - 15 people around, all of them standing around and filming this man's murder on their cell phone cameras. NONE moved to help.

They called contact front, split the defense, and surrounded the guy. He was obviously into the beating, because he didn't even notice my boss pointing his firearm at the guy's chest and ordering him to stop.

Eventually he DID stop when he saw the weapon light shining in the corner of his eyes.

He got up, made a threat about getting his own gun and coming back, and ran off to a red pickup truck. He drove off, and the guy on the ground survived (though I think he was suffering a concussion).

Moral of the story that some (but thankfully not all) war pacifists seem to miss: threatening to kill, or actually killing, in defense of another is not a shameful thing. A hard thing, perhaps. But mostly its moral value is conditional upon the circumstances.

And one of the greatest extenuating circumstances is the virtue of being willing to take a life to save a life. If it would be permissible for us to take lives in our OWN defense, it is equally permissible for another to take life on our behalf when we are morally allowed but tactically incapable.

Arguing otherwise does true pacifists a disservice, as it devolves their otherwise praiseworthy cause to a bad case of Kitty Genovese syndrome.