“We encounter God in the face of a stranger. That, I believe, is the Hebrew Bible’s single greatest and most counterintuitive contribution to ethics. God creates difference; therefore it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in The Dignity of Difference
During my first-ever visit to the Middle East in October, the further I traveled in Lebanon and Jordan, the louder the lament I heard about deep divides in the region. In Amman, I met with the leader of a respected NGO. His organization has poured millions and millions of dollars into humanitarian work in recent years, including major support for refugees of the war in Syria and of forced removal from Palestine and Israel.
“But the situation has stayed the same,” he said. “Without peace there is no change. We are repeating the same things. We have to change something in society.” And then he said this: “The impossible issue is to work for peace. Because it depends not only on you.”
Those words have haunted me. In so many places in our world today, peace is both the necessary issue and the impossible issue. And without it, in so many ways, we keep repeating the same things. Why is peace resisted? Can possibility interrupt impossibility?
Perhaps some clues come from a fresh look at a familiar story told by Jesus not many miles away from where I met the Jordanian NGO leader. The story (recorded in Luke 10:25-37) is Jesus’s answer to a lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells of a man walking the road to Jericho who is attacked, stripped, and left for dead by robbers. Two Jewish religious leaders pass by, see him, but do not stop to help. But a passing Samaritan stops, cares for the wounded man and transports him to an inn on his donkey.
Scholar Ken Bailey observed that Jesus being a Middle Eastern Jew himself, the story is steeped in a culture that found the story deeply disturbing. For the lawyer and those listening, a neighbor was “limited to the ‘sons of your own people,’” to fellow Jews in your own family or town. There was no obligation to help the victim. But the Samaritan responds without knowing the religious and ethnic identity of the victim. Adding outrage for the listeners, says Bailey, is that Samaritans were a despised group, making the hero of the story not a good Jew but a repulsive outsider.
In other words, this is both a story about unconditional action on behalf of any person or group — whether stranger, outsider, or despised “other” — who suffers injustice (the robbery and beating) and about conflict between mutually despising groups. It is both a “Just Samaritan” story about healing physical wounds and a “Jewish-versus-Samaritan” story about healing social wounds. The two who pass by are more loyal to “my people” than to a moral vision. Healing is only possible by trespassing those boundaries. Jesus changes the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “To whom must I become a neighbor?” Healing wounds can require a disturbing change in identity.
Jesus’s story offers another reason why peace seems impossible: healing wounds is costly. Bailey writes that the Samaritan “is using all his available resources (oil, wine, a cloth wrapping, riding animal, time, energy and money) to care for the wounded man.” Furthermore, a “Samaritan would not be safe in a Jewish town with a wounded [person] over the back of his riding animal.” By transporting the man to an inn in Jewish territory his actions are not only materially costly, but they also put his own life at risk.
To become a neighbor across divides requires costly personal involvement. This cost has been succinctly described regarding racism in America by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who said that while he sees “extraordinary progress in the changing attitudes of white Americans toward blacks and other minorities,” many “are not prepared to make the concessions that are important for the improvement of black lives.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow stated it more bluntly during the protest marches after George Floyd’s murder in 2020: “Many white people have been moved by the current movement, but how will they respond when true equality threatens their privilege?” In the Samaritan, Jesus gives us a vision of solidarity with sacrifice.
Jesus’s story also invites us to imagine the deeper obstacles that stand in the way of peace, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in a 1967 speech:
"On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
Individual acts of mercy alone cannot bring deep physical and social healing. The Jordanian leader I met, himself a third-generation Palestinian refugee, said his grandmother told him many stories of how Palestinians and Jews (and Christians, Jews and Muslims as well) lived peacefully together before Israel became a nation in 1948. But to become a nation of neighbor love, Israel must address decades of unjust policies illegal under international law which have hurt and alienated Palestinians. And today Lebanese can go to jail in their country if they meet Israelis, and Israeli law treats Lebanon as an enemy state. In any similar context – from the inability of North Koreans and Korean American family members to meet, to persecuted Uyghurs in China, to the trajectories of racial discrimination in the U.S. — such structures pose great obstacles to becoming neighbors across divides.
Author Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, wrote that “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I also think of my Korean American mentor Syngman Rhee who crossed into North Korea seeking peace and was called a traitor by many of his own people. “To be a peacemaker is to be a bridge,” he said. “And bridges get walked on from both sides.”
Taking sides against injustice or being bridges between divided groups – must we choose? In Jesus’s story, these callings are not opposed but, like the thumb and forefinger, opposable parts which only by being held together can carry the calling of peace with justice.
That calling disturbs identities which prevent becoming a neighbor to those who are not “my people,” and carries a high cost. Indeed, both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (in 1981) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (in 1995) were assassinated by fellow citizens when they trespassed the boundaries of acceptable justice and peace between Arabs and Israelis. Not to mention the cost carried by the one who told the Samaritan story, who later, “for the joy that was set before him,” endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2).
Without that kind of peacemaking, in the words of my new Jordanian friend, won’t we keep repeating the same things over and over?