Inaugurating a new blog with a brief series of posts on a topic that’s become increasingly fascinating to me of late: the idea of the neighbor. Starting with, well, one of that idea’s earlier and more significant theorists…
Jesus Christ doesn’t generally get the credit he deserves for being an interesting theorist.
One of my favorite moments in this vein is the parable of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of Luke. Therein, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must to do inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a deceptively logocentric-seeming question: “What is written in the law?” The lawyer appropriately answers with the old Levitical saw: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus affirms the answer, but the Lawyer–pushing his luck, and, according to Luke, wanting to “justify himself,” asks, with what I always imagine as a smug, know-it-all smirk, what he thinks a clever question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds with the well-known parable, which deconstructs the Lawyer’s glib question in a manner that would make Derrida envious. The parable does this by pulling the rug out from under the lawyer’s question, rendering the quesiton absurd in relation to the command. To accomplish this, Jesus brilliantly reverses the expected subject-object relation in the story: the lawyer, after all, is asking to whom he should be a neighbor, which might lead one to expect a parable in which a Judean, like the lawyer, is the one in a position to be neighborly. Jesus turns that position on its ear, making the Judean in the story the object rather than the subject, the one in need of a neighbor, not the one in a position to be one. The Judean protagonist of the parable, then, watches as his compatriots in the upper echelons of the society of which he is a part, using a twisted concept of their own law, wind up ruling out their own most obvious neighbor (a fellow orthodox Judean Jew) as such. That, of course, is precisely what the lawyer was attempting to do with his question: rule out potential neighbors. After all, the question “who is my neighbor” assumes that the command hinges on a differentiation between two sides of a binary: those who are one’s neighbors, and those who are not. Jesus, in his response, out-Derridas Derrida by not only showing that the lawyer is engaging in binary thinking and that his binary is far from stable, but also in showing that binary thinking itself lies entirely outside the discursive and ethical universe of the commandment in question. In terms of the way in which the lawyer applies his own law, the one in need of a neighbor is ruled out as such by members of his own community. He even rules himself out: if the protagonist in the parable is a stand-in for the lawyer, then he is as ritually unclean to himself as he is to the Levite and the Priest. Applying the question “who is my neighbor?” to the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, then, excludes the lawyer-protagonist from both neighborhood and selfhood.
Jesus provides a solution to this dilemma in the figure of the Samaritan. It is important that Jesus identifies him as such–through a cultural label–as doing so creates an ironic, needling reference to the very kind of cultural exclusion and categorization the lawyer, through his question, wants to apply to the neighbor: the Samaritan is a member of a cultural “them” as opposed to the laywer’s “us.” Samaritans were regarded by Judeans as practitioners of a heretical perversion of Judaism, unclean, despised, possibly violent and dangerous. That categorization makes it all the more astonishing that the Samaritan in the story disregards all such categories and simply identifies with the protagonist in his suffering humanity. His action is a bit like a benign version of a return of the Freudian repressed: the repressed other that the subject has excluded in order to reify his own subjectivity comes back not to haunt the subject, but to rescue him and return him to wholeness.
Jesus then proceeds to further trap the lawyer with the flaws in his own thinking, asking him who acted like a neighbor in the story. Unable to bring himself to say the dirty word “Samaritan,” the lawyer responds, “the one who showed mercy.” It’s a great moment: Jesus here actually banks on the lawyer’s own exclusionary thinking precisely in order to force him out of it, rhetorically cornering him to the point that he has to admit that neighborliness has nothing to do with exclusive categorization, but rather with acts of mercy that have no regard for category. The parable points to the paradox the lawyer’s question is meant to mask: to ask to whom the commandment to love the neighbor applies is to break the commandment before the attempt is made to follow it. Jesus thus exposes the lawyer’s question as the rhetorical dodge that it is; the question shows not that he is interested in learning how to follow what he admits is the highest commandment under his own law, but that he has already decided not to.
Thus we learn the danger of attempting to out-theorize the Supreme Being.