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Good Samaritan Seeking Human Kindness

The Good Samaritan: Insights into Systemic Inequality

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David Shosanya
Rev David Shosanya

When David Shosanya spoke at The Justice Conference in 2017, he presented a bold interpretation of the Good Samaritan using the lens of ‘intersectionality’ – intertwining his understanding of the socio-political context of the familiar parable with his own socio-political context in London to imagine how the story might inspire us to create communities of justice and mercy. This study enables us to follow his bold path, reading the context beyond the text, and so embody the world we want.

In this reading of the Good Samaritan, we ask questions about the structure of the society in which the Good Samaritan lived and the traveller was assaulted, in order to understand how we might increase justice in our own communities. To do this, we must move beyond a narrow reading of the text that focuses on personal piety, to an expansive reading that looks at systemic inequalities. In doing so, we see not just mercy, but justice.

Justice is littered in the text of the story of the Good Samaritan – structural justice that is. Consider the way the story engages with the following systems of inequality:

Racial and cultural justice

There is a Jew, there is a Samaritan, and there is the Roman Empire. This story is set in a context in which one group is empowered and another is disenfranchised. Actually, there are two dominated communities, and what happens when two communities (the Jews and the Samaritans) are disenfranchised, is that there is a need to fight for visibility. Sociologists call this ‘contested space’. Each group seeks to identify who they are and to assert themselves in a geographical space and that space becomes contested and they begin to paint caricatures of each other.

This story deliberately subverts cultural stereotypes of its characters (a priest is ignorant of the law, a Samaritan is filled with compassion). Identify caricatures in our own society, and find creative ways we might subvert them in our own stories of faith in action.

The only way we can transform a society that has structural inequalities is to be embodied with justice and its structures, and to call society’s structure back into alignment with God’s purpose for its plan and its life.

Gender justice

You might say, ‘but there are no women featured in the text!’ Precisely! So, is Jesus colluding with the exclusion of women? No. I think Jesus’ refusal to speak about women within the story of the Good Samaritan is a structural critique of the society in which he lives. Jesus is saying, ‘if I tell you that a woman was raped, or sexually abused or domestically abused, it won’t have the same effect on your warped mind as me telling you a Jewish man was robbed. I know (you think) women don’t matter and in this you condemn yourselves.’

What if the story’s characters were all women? What effect does it make to the story? Read Luke 10:38-42 – a story of women. How do the parable and Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha’s house fit together? Consider the roles of the sisters as a commentary of the great commandment.

Economic justice

If you were going on holiday, would you stay at the local inn that the Samaritan deposited the traveller in? I wouldn’t. It’s unlikely to be a 5-star hotel with all the facilities. It may well be that the innkeeper made his money from people injured on the road. Today, there are also businesses that disenfranchise communities. In the US, the most common shop in African American communities is a liquor store. In the UK, most betting shops are placed in communities that are poor.

The story presents the innkeeper in a somewhat benign manner – neither ignorant nor compassionate. But certainly not the hero. How can we enable our businesses, our economy, our resources and services to become just and so fulfil their God-given potential to bring righteousness into our world?

We must disabuse our minds of the idea that increased justice is doing more, and into the understanding that justice is being who we are. Increased justice must be about who we are as individuals and organisations, for we are the embodiment of the world we want.

Disability justice

Both the Levite and the priest look over and see a man on the ground who is dying, and they walk on by on the other side. If they won’t help a ‘whole’ man who has been left to die, do you think they are going to place any value on a disabled person?

We are complex human beings with overlapping identities. A contextual reading of this parable helps us move towards a politics that recognises the unique reality of each individual – the differences that shape and define us. It is only by placing ourselves in close proximity to those who are different to us that we can allow them to shape and redefine us.

The story’s victim is the most ‘normative’ in the context of the culture – male, able-bodied, Jewish and adult. As soon as he fell outside the normative (once he became disabled) he was denied justice. How can we dismantle what ‘normative’ means in today’s culture?

Social justice

We are inclined to slander the robbers, but people become criminals way before they commit their first crime because they are denied access to certain services like education, youth work and support because of the nature of the communities in which they live. There’s an issue of access and exclusion in this text.

Could this scenario have been prevented with improved investment in the lives of children who live in communities otherwise denied access to services? Consider crime rates in disadvantaged communities, and the alarmingly high rates of imprisonment for people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.

What is the impact of structural injustice?

This story clearly shows the impact of structural injustice on people who are the victims of oppression through the assault on the traveller. The Bible says they stripped him, beat him and left him for dead.

To strip someone is to have no regard for their human dignity. I think this is structurally part of the text because we have an indifference to the dignity of the poor. The story also says they beat him. This is a structural reference to their indifference to somebody’s agency. To beat someone is to dominate somebody. To make sure they have no agency, no autonomy, and no sense of self. We also do this to the poor. Then, they left him half dead. This is an indifference to life. Injustice is an indifference to life. There was no concern for the existence and embodiment of God’s presence in another human being.

Injustice leaves people stripped of dignity, beaten and denied their right to self, and left for dead with no respect for the embodiment of God within them. This is the structural impact of injustice on people who are the victims of oppression.

Redeeming history through the Good Samaritan

The story of the Good Samaritan is not simply a story of rescuing an injured man. It is simultaneously a story of redeeming history and reconfiguring social relationships through structural analysis. When we recognise our own intrinsic injustices, we allow the wounds of those injustices to be healed.

As we do this, may God grant us grace.

Rev David Shosanya is one of the leading voices of social justice in the United Kingdom. David has served as a Regional Minister for The London Baptist Association, and co-founded and launched the internationally acclaimed Street Pastors initiative. He is a visiting lecturer at Spurgeons Bible College.