An Atheist’s Favourite Parable: The Good Samaritan

It may seem strange to think that a faithless woman such as myself has a favourite story from arguably the most influential religious text in our society, but it’s true. I do.

Here’s the quick version, which you’ve probably heard before.

A man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he’s attacked by a bunch of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him to die by the side of the road.

As he’s lying there, a priest comes down the road. He sees the man, but ignores him and keeps walking.

Not long after, a Levite (a Jewish man who had a lot of status at the time due to heredity) came along. He too saw the gravely injured man, yet kept walking.

Finally, a Samaritan comes along, but unlike the others, he went to the injured man, bandaged and treated his wounds, before putting the man on his own donkey and bringing him to an inn, where he continued to take care of him. When he left the next day, he gave money to the innkeeper, telling him to look after the injured man, and that any extra costs the innkeeper incurred would be repaid upon the Samaritan’s return.

Now, Jesus tells this story to explain being “neighbourly”, and thus demonstrate the kinds of people who exemplify the way we should treat each other. Once he’s finished, he asks, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

The response given is obvious: “He who showed mercy on him.”

“Well, duh,” you might well say. But to take the story at face value without understanding its context in the period causes us to lose its most potent meaning.

Let me retell it in a modern context. It’s a little bit longer, so bear with me. (I’ve also added a bit of extra editorial in white that you can read by highlighting the text. I couldn’t help myself.)

A man is walking through a dangerous part of the city at night, when he’s set upon by a gang of muggers. They steal everything he has, strip him, beat him, and leave him the gutter to die. He barely manages to crawl out onto a street where there is a bunch of foot traffic before passing out.

As he’s lying there, a preacher comes down the road. He sees the man, figures it’s all part of the Lord’s plan, and keeps walking.

Then comes a politician. He also sees the injured man. He figures he’s probably going to die, so no point burdening the health system by calling an ambulance. Plus, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d vote for him anyway. He keeps walking too.

Then a rich man comes through in his limousine with tinted windows. He rolls down the window to see what that thing by the side of the road is, then once he’s clocked the injured man, he rolls his window back up and tells his chauffeur to keep driving. As they leave, he mumbles something about “druggies” taking “my tax money” through welfare.

Finally, a Muslim woman sees the injured man. She calls an ambulance and rides with him to the hospital. She waits in the hall to see if he’s going to make it. When he wakes up, she helps him lodge a police report and cancel his cards before she drives him home. Over the next few weeks, she continues to check on him, bringing him food to make sure he’s eating properly, until he’s fully healed.

And so the question remains the same: Who’s example is it that we should follow? Who is our true neighbour?

So, what’s the purpose of changing the identity of the characters, from the priest and the Levite, to the Samaritan?

It’s quite simple: those who walk past the injured man are always the people with the power in the society, often admired and glorified by many. In this world, that would be the rich capitalists, the politicians who make laws that favour the rich capitalists, and the religious right (especially those who can be found preaching the Prosperity Gospel, which is utter bosh).

More importantly, you could change the identity of the Samaritan character to any of a number of disadvantaged groups that are regularly discriminated against: a trans person, a person with a disability, someone in financial difficulty, an Aboriginal Australian… It’s sadly quite a long list, but the point is that it’s not the identity of the person that we should concern ourselves with but the actions.

And that’s why this isn’t just a “do the right thing” story, it has this question of identity that is at its core.

The name “Samaritan” doesn’t mean “a good person” in the way it does to many today. The Samaritans were, and still are, a specific religious and ethnic group within the Israelite races, and in the time of Jesus, the Samaritans and the main Jewish population hated each other. They destroyed and defiled each others temples, which is probably the most severe way I can think of telling someone you’re never going to be friends short of actually killing them. Even once the story is over, the man who asked the question that prompted the telling refuses to name the Samaritan as such, calling him only “he who showed mercy”. Pretty damn telling, that.

And yet, this story focuses not on the background of the Samaritan and whatever preconceptions Jesus’ audience may have had about them, but rather the actions of the individual, proving they matter more than whatever you might think about the person before they perform said actions. It’s this tendency to cling to ideas about what people are or should be rather than looking at evidence of what it is they actually do that is the fuel for racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and every other shitty way of thinking that pervades the way some members of our species think.

The other reason why this story is so important in our modern context is that those who walk past the injured man not only do so in the story, they walk past those in need in the real world every single day. The religious right put their desire to be a bigot before recognising the needs of the LGBTI+ community (and others outside their church) to be seen as human and to be treated with love and respect. The politicians treat the poor with disdain through programs like Robodebt, or refusing to raise the rate of payments that haven’t risen in real terms in over 25 years, and are well below the poverty line. The rich don’t pay their taxes and treat their workers (and the rest of us) like dirt.

I’m not a complete fool; I know there’s nothing we as individuals can do about the rich and the religious right. There is, however, one group that we do have influence over: politicians, especially given so many of them profess to be of the Christian faith.

The fact that this story is still so incredibly clear in the work of our political class clearly demonstrates that a significant number of folks who proclaim to be Christians, most notably the hierarchy, has a long way to go in earning their place in their own eternal life.

So if you see your local Christian-identifying MP at church, or if you feel the impulse to write a letter or give their office a call, ask them: what are they doing, not for the priest and the Levite, but for the Samaritans?

For it isn’t the way we treat our friends that demonstrates our morals and our worthiness.

It’s the way we treat everyone else.



This New Year Needs A New Climate Attitude

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, New Years Eve is usually my favourite time of the year, but naturally this year was different. The smoke haze covering Canberra is near Dickensian, and I started my night with the news that my aunt and uncle had just lost their home to the bushfires near Ulladulla. In a horrific twist of irony, members of my family regularly gathered there to usher in the new year. To put it incredibly frankly: shit is fucked.

To have all this happening at a time when I’m trying to recover from 18 months of PNES bullshit and some of the most severe depression I’ve had in a long time makes me feel like taking time for myself is selfish and impractical. This is a time when I personally really need to be focusing on the smaller picture rather than the bigger one, but it’s the latter that feels like it needs addressing first.

And the fact that it could have been addressed ten, twenty, even thirty years ago has me infuriated.

On December 11, there was a protest in Sydney’s smoke haze calling for action on climate change. Living in a very, very safe Nationals seat, it felt like anything I could do in solidarity would be pointless, but I still felt like I had to do something. Two days beforehand, I decided I would have a sit in out the front of my local Federal MP’s Dubbo office. I didn’t care if I was doing it alone or with company, still I posted my plan on Facebook to welcome those who wanted to come along. I managed to get six others to join me, and we got a lot of support from people walking and driving past.

What we weren’t expecting was for Mark Coulton MP to be there.

After an hour of standing in the heat, we were beginning to consider going home when our MP walked out of his office, carrying a suitcase.

Coulton asked us what we were doing, and we told him that we were there in solidarity with friends and family marching in Sydney. We asked him if he had any comment to make. He laughed and replied, “No, no comment.”

Our group expressed significant disappointment and frustration as politely as we could. His response? “I support those who do practical things.”

Practical things. What a crock. This is a man who has the ability to write and vote on legislation that could turn this situation around. This is a man who voted to repeal the carbon tax, which was proven to have had a positive impact in terms of reducing Australia’s emissions. This is a man whose entire electorate is in severe drought with no end in sight, and is at incredible risk of longer, hotter droughts in the years to come due to climate change, whose government signed off on giving 12 billion litres of water, caveat free, to Adani for their new coal mine.

As citizens, there’s only so much we can do. One hundred companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s emissions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of them currently pay little or no tax. Hell, in Australia they’re likely getting Government funding. We can do all the practical things we can – moving to electric vehicles, putting up solar panels, divesting from companies that invest in fossil fuels, using minimal electricity, going vegan – but all of those things are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the greater picture of the Australian carbon emitting numbers.

We’re doing so little, to the point of actually blocking the motions of other countries trying to do their bit, that we scored the lowest in the world on the Climate Change Performance Index, a scale that measures the effectiveness of governments’ climate policies. We literally got 0.0, and just so you’re aware, they don’t score it like a game of golf. Even India, China and the United States (who were second last) beat us in terms of having better climate policies. How utterly humiliating.

We all came away from the conversation with Coulton feeling like we had been brushed aside and weren’t being taken seriously because we weren’t supporting the Nationals’ position. While I had initially gone into the protest more as a way to feel a little less helpless in the face of the bushfire disaster, climate change and the fact that science keeps getting ignored by our government, Coulton‘s dismissal of our presence, let alone our concerns, as not “practical” only made me angry. I came in passive; I left pissed off.

Just before Christmas, I was interviewed by The Daily Liberal about the protest and what we felt about Mr Coulton’s response. You can read it here, but the worst bit is easily the part where he denies that the current weather events are unprecedented, because people in the 1800’s died because it was hot and they didn’t have air conditioning. (Thankfully, the journalist writing the story linked up a more accurate source to refute his claim that this kind of weather is normal, which is tragically refreshing in the modern commercial media landscape.)

What annoyed me more than anything was that he didn’t even pretend to care. Sure, he seemed to be in a rush to head somewhere given his suitcase, but he could have placated us by recommending we call his office to book an appointment to meet him (and then never followed through on getting back to us), or suggested we put something in writing for his records (so he could send back a dismissive form letter, like he did to another friend of mine before the 2019 election). Instead, we were treated with absolute contempt.

But like I say: I’ve got a bee in my bonnet now. I have friends with young kids who are going to be living on this planet after I’m gone and I want to make sure that they’re not living in a world that’s more reminiscent of the Fallout franchise than the one I grew up in.

So I’m not going quietly.

Edit: due to an increasing number of paralysis attacks, the following project has been postponed until further notice. I did, however, organise a second protest on January 10, and intend to maintain monthly gatherings until the Government makes a decent effort to stop reduce Australia’s carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels.

Every Wednesday lunchtime from January 8th, I’m going to be hosting a busking singalong somewhere on Macquarie Street in Dubbo. I’m calling it “Wednesdays Against Warming” and there’ll be lots of protest songs, with the emphasis on a different song for the singalong every week. (Week 1 will be “No Longer There” by The Cat Empire.) There’s no Facebook group or event, though maybe I will make one sooner or later – it’s all very ad hoc because I’ve never done this before, organising some sort of resistance.

But I have to try, because we can’t just accept this as the new normal. Our lives depend on it.

The Last Barbecue

Kevin had thought about the ideal location for weeks before settling on this spot. It wasn’t far from his favourite camping spot, where he and the boys would set up for long weekends of fishing and rabbit hunting. Now he was here and it was really happening, all those memories were making him dry in the mouth. He was getting choked up. He wasn’t going to cry, though. Kevin was a man with a job to do. One last job.

He pulled out fifty cents from his pocket, pressed the starter button, and laid his barbecuing tools out on the bench next to the hot plate. While he waited for it to heat up, he opened the esky. He grabbed a beer out from beside the carcass, skinned and shining under the cling wrap. He paused and looked at it, then he ran a finger down the length of its spine. The flesh squished at his touch, just like any other meat.

Suddenly angered, he slammed the lid of the esky and went back to drinking his beer and prepping for the cook up. It might not be the right thing to do, but he was here now. He was locked in.

Skinning it had taken longer than he’d expected. There were so many little toes to get around. He knew he could have just cut them off, but if he was going to go out this way, he was committed to enjoying every morsel of flesh he could suck off those bones.

When he was satisfied that the tiny corpse was seared to his liking, he picked it up with the barbecue tongs and threw it onto his dinner plate. It nearly filled the whole thing. Perfect.

For almost a year now, he hadn’t been able eat a single mouthful of sausage, a sliver of steak, even a taste of chicken breast without breaking into hives, at best. At worst, he would go into full blown anaphylactic shock. The doctors had puzzled over it for months; meat wasn’t something you just became allergic to overnight, if at all. Kevin was a medical curiosity, poked and prodded by dickheads with stethoscopes who couldn’t tell him when he’d be able to sit down to a lamb kebab again. Finally, after analysing test after test and realising that there had been a spike in related cases on Sydney’s North Shore, they asked Kevin if he’d ever been bitten by a tick.

“Yeah,” Kevin had replied. “A couple of times. But I flicked it off and it was all good.” He’d laughed. “Don’t tell me that little bastard’s the reason for all this!”

But it was. Kevin had been struck down by mammalian meat allergy, and he would never be able to eat the flesh of another creature again.

All those beautiful Sunday roasts, Saturday night barbecues and late night Maccas runs had been ripped from his grasp, all because one little bloodsucker bit one little marsupial that couldn’t digest animal products, and then bit him, passing on one tiny protein from that furry bastard into his circulatory system, where it multiplied and took over his body, until he was allergic to that one thing integral to every red blooded bloke’s identity (after beer): meat.

Apparently there’d been a massive increase in the number of bandicoots in the area around Kevin’s place, and with it had come an explosion in the local tick population. Their favourite food? Bandicoot blood, although Kevin was apparently a close second.

After six months of nothing but rabbit food, Kevin had almost lost it. He decided he needed to eat flesh again, even if it killed him, which it probably would. He desperately longed to have something that could bleed between his teeth, something you could order on a range from blue to well done. He wanted to devour a victim of factory farming, from paddock to pan to plate.

The worst bit was watching his wife Sharon chow down on anything she wanted. You could do that when you were pregnant. While she was downing a steak and chips, Kev was stuck sucking on a kale smoothie or some other hippy bullshit. Now the baby was here, the smell of breastmilk was constantly wafting through the house, reminding Kevin of veal and lamb and all the other baby animals that were even more delicious than their parents. It was driving him mad.

He knew he had to get his revenge, even if it killed him.

Kevin took one long, final look at his last meal. He could smell the meat juices hanging in the air, making his stomach queasy while making his mouth water. He pulled out the pictures of his mum, Sharon and baby Eddie one last time, kissed each in turn, then put it down on top of the esky.

He tore into his kill. It was such a relief to taste non-plant based proteins again. Plus, it was fucking delicious.

Once he was done with his grisly feast, Kevin lay down and waited for his immune system to betray him. He thought about what the cops would think when they found his body, probably frothing at the mouth, tiny bones strewn around him, an enamel plate smeared with tomato sauce by his side. He wondered if they’d be disgusted by his crime, or if they would find his tastes understandable once they understood his circumstances. Maybe they had always wanted to do it themselves, but never had the guts to do it. Maybe they’d find it ironic that Kevin didn’t have the guts for it either.

But at least they’d know he had gone down fighting. He hadn’t gone quiet into that good night. He’d seen the cause of his own problem and taken vengeance in his own proud way.

At least they’d know he’d taken one of the bastards down with him.

Fucking bandicoots.