Asked consciously or not, it’s a question that can lead to energetic and life-giving generosity and also to harsh judgement, anger and conflict, says Leonie Keaney.
BY Leonie Keaney
Why them and not me? Pope Francis asked this question in his TED Talk on April 25 this year. “I could have very well ended up among today’s discarded people” (the sick, the imprisoned, those seeking refuge, those persecuted and terrorised), he said. So he asks himself each day: what hand of fate, what sliding door moment, has brought him to the life he has?
Pope Francis’ question is a reversal of the often-heard cry for attention and for opportunity in our world – “what about me?” We hear it all the time argued for in the name of balance and equality, but Francis’ question challenges all who enjoy the privileges of prosperity and freedom to think again about the life they have.
Why them and not me? It is a question that is haunting for prosperous Western societies like ours. Asked consciously or not, it can lead to energetic and life-giving generosity and also to harsh judgement, anger and conflict. Maybe both responses come from the anxiety that this question arouses.
For some, the response is outreach and action. We see it everywhere: in the work of the Good Samaritan Sisters – here in Australia, in Kiribati, the Philippines, Japan; in the enthusiasm of the young people in our Good Samaritan Education schools who participate in the annual Ministry Outreach program, who join the immersion programs and who flock to work in soup kitchens and food banks across our cities. We see it in young people everywhere as they travel and work among the poor and marginalised in all parts of the globe, driven it seems, by an imperative to make a difference, but also by an incipient questioning that, perhaps, we owe something for all that we have and others don’t. Why them and not me?
One of the most harrowing stories from the recent and shocking attack on London Bridge was that of Australian nurse, Kirsty Boden, who ran towards the danger to assist those who had been injured and was herself then murdered. Popular culture has a name for the person who is not afraid to reach out, who is not afraid to ask “why them and not me?” It is “the Good Samaritan”.
The idea of the person who goes to help the stranger in need is embedded in the imagination of a good world and people of all faiths, and of none, who use it to capture the goodness of such action – whether they know the parable or not. Indeed, it is idealised, expressed always in a way that this is how we would all like to be. And yet, there is so much that happens that is at odds with this ideal.
Witness the push-back against generosity and openness in this country, manifested in campaigns against refugee numbers in Australia, in the increasing prominence and the ugliness of so-called patriotic, white supremacist movements, in diminishing foreign aid in the Federal government budget that is not challenged, in stricter rules for English language proficiency for Australian citizenship – while at the same time, funding for English language teaching is cut.
Of course, it is not just in Australia. Western democracy is increasingly unstable as populations across Europe and the US reject openness to the stranger, resist hospitality to the weak and helpless, and vote accordingly for those who argue to exclude, reject and ignore. For all the posturing about trade and currency, Brexit is primarily about migration numbers and Trump’s agenda in the US is driven by the idea of an isolationist US where “making America great again” is intended to be at the expense of others.
In the aftermath of the terrible events in the UK, fear and scepticism about the other, the stranger, seem to have ratcheted up once again. When we wonder at the words and actions of those who seek to marginalise and destroy the ‘other’, perhaps fear of the answer to Pope Francis’ question is why they lack the tenderness that would be both liberating and constructive. Yes, tenderness. It is, says Francis, “the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women”. Tenderness is “being on the same level as the other”. It “is not weakness; it is fortitude”.
Amy-Jill Levine, the renowned scripture scholar, faithful Jew and New Testament expert, is currently touring in Australia thanks to the leadership of the Brisbane Catholic Education office. She specialises in the parables. Her exploration of the parable of the Good Samaritan invites a focus not on the Samaritan, but on the man in the ditch. The parable could be called “the man who fell among robbers”, she says, and if you read the parable through that lens, a new take on things emerges.
Who is this man? He is a stranger to all. Not neighbour, but stranger – to the Samaritan, the priest, the Levite and to us as readers and listeners. We do not know if he is rich, poor, happy, loved, mean-spirited or sad. Here is the Muslim woman being verbally abused on a train, the homeless man at the station, the starving child in Ethiopia, the asylum seeker in Villawood or Maribrynong or Nauru.
For the priest and the Levite, was reaching out to the man in the ditch too threatening and dangerous? It wasn’t necessarily that they lacked compassion or care, but perhaps they were crippled by fear of the stranger and by being confronted with the possibility that this could be them. How often are we the priest or the Levite, not the Samaritan?
When the Samaritan took pity on the man, stranger that he was, was he also asking, why him and not me? The man in the ditch is all those who experience misfortune – the poor, the injured, the ill, the damaged. Are we willing to ask, why them and not me? Or are we afraid to ask? Do we fear that the answer is because we are just lucky, and how then do we account for our good fortune? Do we have the tenderness to see the other, the stranger, as one of us, as neighbour?