One perfectly sensible way to tell the story of social psychology is to begin at the Holocaust. In the wake of what seemed to be unimaginable horror, there was a desperate need to understand how such a thing could have happened, not least so that we might be able to avoid it happening again. And so, the Jewish diaspora, particularly in the United States, took it upon themselves to investigate the issue: thus was born a field obsessed with such dark matters as intergroup conflict, stereotyping, prejudice, ostracism, and dehumanization. The tragedy is that these psychologists have, in the past seventy or so years after the War, found time and time again how terribly commonplace, terribly normal this darkness is among and within us. We are, all of us, prone to inhumanity.
Who is my neighbour? he asks, meaning: whom am I required to love, even as I love myself, that I may inherit everlasting life? Jesus, in this most famous of parables, seems to refuse to answer the question. Instead he speaks of a man, beaten and abandoned, who was helped, not by a priest or a Levite—people with whom this interlocutor would have identified—but by a Samaritan, an outgroup member, as social psychologists would say. The traveller’s own social identity is left ambiguous, but it seems safe to assume that the lawyer would have read him as Jewish: after all, the parable is reminiscent of an old story in the book of Chronicles, in which Samarian warriors released their wounded captives—soldiers from the Kingdom of Judah—having clothed and shod, anointed and fed them, and even returned them home on donkeys to Jericho. This is therefore not a story about who our neighbours are, whom we should love as ourselves, so much as a story about whose neighbours we are, by whom we are loved. In characteristic fashion, Jesus turns the legalistic question on its head.
This reversal casts the Samaritan—the other—in unexpected light. The other is not a threat, not a violent criminal or a vigorous competitor or a voracious consumer of state-funded welfare. Nor is he merely an object of charity, a passive recipient of our magnanimity, our neighbourly love. He is neither to be feared, nor to be pitied. Rather, in this story, he—the other, the Samaritan—is the saviour: the one without whom we would have perished, abandoned by our peers, left to die alone.
This is not a story about who our neighbours are, but about whose neighbours we are. To be sure, there is a symmetry to the relation of being a neighbour: if A is a neighbour of B, then B must be a neighbour of A. In this sense, the parable of the Good Samaritan is, of course, a perfectly sensible answer to the lawyer’s question. But this flipping on the head of the question is not without its significance. Jesus does not just tell his interlocutor to love the Samaritan: he tells him to be like the Samaritan. Be like the other: the immigrant, the refugee, the ethnic minority, the religious nonconformist, the queer and gender nonconforming. Love, like they love themselves, like you love yourself.
Seventy or so years after the Holocaust, and we don’t know much, but we do know that there is no silver bullet with which to vanquish our deep-seated instincts to favour those we deem to be like us, even to the detriment of those we deem to be unlike us. We live in insecure times, and such insecurity and anxiety has a way of sharpening our boundaries and our claws. In such times, we are prone to build walls, rather than bridges, whatever the Pope might have to say about the matter.
Here, at this University, social psychologists tend to favour what is called the “contact hypothesis”: familiarity with the other, so the research suggests, breeds liking. The well-known problem with this strategy is that the individuals with whom we come into contact and whom we discover we like are often re-categorised, and so prejudices about the group itself remain stubbornly and unrepentantly unfalsified. I cringe whenever someone tells me, under the false assumption that it is a compliment, that they don’t see me as Chinese. The implication is that I’m not like the rest of them, those foreigners, to be kept at arm’s length.
In the wider culture, there is also the move to “not see race”: that is, to behave as though there are no differences between groups of people. As noble as this is, not least as an attempt to reduce stereotyping, it also risks collapsing into the hegemony of the culturally dominant. To ignore difference and otherness is, all too often, to refuse to make space for them, to ignore their needs and preferences and grievancesg and unique contributions to the common good. Thus, so-called “men’s rights” activism against feminism and the #alllivesmatter strategy of denying the systematic bias against Black Americans. When we say that we want us all to share the same values or speak the same language or worship the same God, we usually mean that others should share our values, our language, our God. We want cooperation and unity and friendship and peace, to be sure, but only on our terms. The problem, for Christians, is that the gospel simply does not let us buy peace on the cheap.
In our fervent commitment to the doctrine of the Incarnation, we typically emphasize God’s becoming one of us, like us in every respect. This is, of course, well and good. But given our current social and cultural contexts, Christ is also other. As appropriate as it is for people around the world to depict Christ in creative and contextual ways, we are rightly disturbed by that all too familiar image of the White Jesus, whether in his Aryan form or his American Republican one. Jesus of Nazareth is, in one sense, every man, woman, and child; but, at the same time, is—in scandalous particularity—a Middle Eastern peasant, once a refugee, now in occupied territory, a convicted criminal, a man on death row. It is this poor foreigner on the margins of society who is the image of the invisible God, in whom and for whom and through whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth, in whom all of the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.
This strange man, through whom God reconciles all things, makes peace with his blood, and calls us—not least in our dying, in the waters of baptism; and our offering ourselves to be broken and spilt, in the eucharist—(calls us) to do the same.
Who is my neighbour? we ask. And what we are told is that Christ is our neighbour, and therefore our call is not just to be nice to those different from us, but to see Christ in them, and to love them accordingly: in the other, the very Christ who saves us, even from ourselves, our prejudices, our insecurities and anxieties, the wounds of our privilege: the callouses on our hearts, the scales in our eyes, our limbs withered with inaction and apathy. What we are told is to see, in the other: Christ, who holds us all, together. Come, let us go and do likewise.