By LENNOX FARRELL
In this 21st century, which symbolic figure or avatar more defines your sense of humanity: the cannibal zombie as movie star, or the Good Samaritan as neighbour? The question is determined, I think, by the relative association of each of these to being “compassionate”.
To elaborate, can this parable, with these sentiments told two millennia ago by an obscure Galilean carpenter, be relevant today? Let’s consider the following: the etymology or origin of the word, “compassion”, its use in Shakespeare’s King Lear, and two related boyhood experiences.
I can recall the death, six decades ago, of our maternal grandmother. I recall, especially because of our mother’s anguish, so wrenching! I recall the women frantically wrapping bed sheets around her womb. Then mightily drawing and knotting the ends, tight!
I recall, too, how on an earlier occasion with parents and neighbours, young and old, I listened to a New Year’s message by Dr. Eric Williams – then and ever the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago. His closing advice was that as nationals, we each “go and do likewise”.
So, what you might ask is a relevant link between Dr. Williams’ using Jesus’ closing advice in the Good Samaritan to close his message to us; of bed sheets tightened to assuage grieving; of Shakespeare’s King Lear; and of today’s diminution of what being human means? Compassion!
In Latin, this word is linked to such concepts as pathos and sympathy. In Greek, it is linked to the root-word, splankhnon; interestingly, also the root-word for, spleen, an organ in your body located in the bowels, or the guts. Compassion, conceptually intestinal, literally means, “to be distressed in one’s gut”; “to suffer in your gut with someone else, even as they also suffer in their gut”. Was this natural process the social basis for the folk-wisdom practised from long experience by neighbours tightening bed sheets around my mother’s grieving womb?
Summarized, compassion is a deeply-seated sense of emotions which links your empathy with the deepest feelings of someone else stricken with anguish. Furthermore, this sense of empathy extends to friend or foe; able or not to reciprocate and caught in the throes of distress or need. The unequivocal extending of selflessness is the essence of compassion.
In today’s world of default sentiments like excessive patriotism, greed, payback, revenge, spin, consumerism, militarism, etc., where does compassion rank? In the past eras of the Roman Empire, the sentiment which was valued was “reason”. Compassion didn’t rank. Today, in nations that trace their origins, architecture, symbols and ideas justifying their imperial designs and global control to Rome, is compassion ranked with reason? If not, can issues of justice, mercy, honour, and truth – kinship affiliates to compassion – rank in these echelons of power?
Shakespeare thought they should. In King Lear, while the major themes include insanity, deception, vanity and excess, Shakespeare specifically ranks compassion as central to King Lear’s redeeming himself from earlier iniquities.
An example of his transformation is in Act 3, Scene 3. There, despite his own descent into madness, by his actions he now expresses consideration for others, “lamenting the trials and tribulations of the poor”. Also, on finding “Poor Tom” the king tears off his own cloak for him, remaining near naked in the biting cold!
Until now, “King Lear has never really thought about such plights as homelessness”. Now, he is able to acknowledge “the poor naked wretches in his kingdom”; one in which himself now a pauper, he is moved “to acknowledge that he should have done more when he had the power and authority to make a difference”. King Lear, a transformed Good Samaritan, had also begun to “go and do likewise”.
Should more of those who carry status in Canada and elsewhere, value such capacity for decency? Maybe, Canada would then initiate conclusive investigations, too long overdue, into the unsolved murders of so many First Nations women. And while decency governs, also retrofit creaking systems of injustice, stereotyping, policing and unemployment unjustly visited on too many young Black men now occupying cell blocks as our ancestors once occupied slave blocks?
There is both despair and hope. In our lifetime, humanity has been blessed with such exemplars of compassion as a Mother Teresa, and a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of Dr. King, Kwame Toure, also known as Stokeley Carmichael, said: “no one feared assassination as did Dr. King; yet no one faced it with more resolve”. We’ve lived, too, with lies, truth, integrity and life as mere commodities. National securities have been shredded by short-sighted leaders whose adventurism into big-power imperialism, unleashed age-old demons of religious animus – once local; now gone global!
To reiterate, compassion is the principle that binds the themes in King Lear, the Good Samaritan, and their mutual commentary on our 21st century. But what are the details of this Biblical parable as found in the Book of Luke: Chapter 10, Verses 25-37?
25: And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him (Jesus), saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
26: He said to him (the lawyer), “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
27: So he answered and said, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbour as yourself”.
28: And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
29: But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”
30: Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31: Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32: Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.
33: But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.
34: So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35: On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”
36: So (Jesus said), “which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
37: And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Does the context within which it was given keep it relevant, mirroring ours today? Yes!
It was given in a context within which neither Jews nor Samaritans cared much for the other. While the two generally had similar beliefs, differences led to estrangement, earlier compounded by the Assyrian conquest of the Samaritans (in the northern Kingdom of Israel), and the invaders inter-breeding with the remaining inhabitants, subsequently making them Gentiles in the eyes of the Jews (in the Kingdom of Judah).
In His parable, by introducing a Samaritan as the “neighbour” who assisted a Jew, Jesus was not only emphasizing the significance and meaning of compassion as a principle in our relations between family, friends and allies. He moreover exalted it as a deep empathy extended plus ultra from one bitterly sworn foe to another. And in need! Are we often faced with choosing between rejecting, or embracing opportunities for compassion?
And we choose, one way or the other, despite our being encompassed by the rampaging forces of militarism: the manufacture, trade, and use of weapon systems exponentially more and more autonomous, futuristic, homicidal and genocidal. We choose despite our having to confront in every generation the hydra-headed normalizing of anti-Black racism. We choose when facing such realities as the need for forgiveness (of forgiving and being forgiven).
In addition, you can choose, wherever you live, move and have your being, to care; for example, to especially care for children in dire need. They need not be yours, but does that put them beyond your concern? Today, given your choices for consumption, and as well, how being human is defined based on who you are, what you have, and where you live, is there any other choice so immediate and inescapable as being either that cannibal zombie, or being that compassionate human, intentionally?
Regarding the latter, the example of the Good Samaritan ever remains, “go and do likewise”.