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No Exceptions - Cultural Difference and Common Humanity

Anthony N. Castle

“The imperative to "love your neighbour as you love yourself" is at the heart of every Western polity… but – right now – this wholesome instinct is leading much of Europe into catastrophic error.” Tony Abbott

“For almost 2,000 years, Christians have been lawyering the Bible to try and figure out how "love thy neighbor" can mean "hate thy neighbor," and how "turn the other cheek" can mean, "screw you, I'm buying space lasers.” Bill Maher

Cartoon Image of men and women

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott took to the world stage recently to argue that the command to love your neighbour should have an exception. Abbott, a former seminarian and practising Catholic, has maintained that this core ethic of Christ, taught in Luke 10:25-37, is appropriate when expressed in the mechanisms of social democracy - workers’ rights, the welfare state, limited humanitarian intake - but does not extend to the Libyan and Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. This isn’t just poor Biblical exegesis but an oddly skewed interpretation of current events. Contrary to Abbott’s implications, asylum seekers in Europe and Australia don’t seek a middleclass existence at the expense of our border security. They are legitimate refugees, as the facts have proven again and again. The Syrians in particular are fleeing a horrid civil war that has taken more than 220,000 lives. These people have been sandwiched between a murderous dictator, ISIL, and air strikes from Russian, American and, as of September, Australian forces. Allowing these people to find refuge in stable nations seems less like a catastrophic error and more like common decency. Furthermore, the act of accepting desperate refugees does not immediately equate to opening all borders and, historically, our nations aren’t weakened by immigration but can be built upon it. For a man who was briefly a prime minister and might have been a priest, Tony Abbott’s disregard for the plight of refugees in Europe and the teachings of Christ is striking.

Internet- yes, I now refer to her as a proper noun- certainly had fun with this moment (google #thetonecommandments), but it really doesn’t matter what the Member for Warringah said (his capacity to say things that matter is likely gone now anyway). Many from the right-wing of Australian, American or British politics could have said these things, whether it be broadsheet columnists, anti-immigration parties or the small and shaven crop of Neo-Nazis that have surfaced. Inevitably this opposition to refugees only ever seems to apply to those who aren’t obviously white, middleclass and Christian. This is nothing new. To show mercy to those who have a common culture but not to those whose culture is different is an old idea. It’s much older than any prime minister. It’s at least two thousand years old, because it’s precisely that attitude that the instruction to love your neighbour was first offered to counter.

A religious expert questions Jesus about the Law, as the story goes. Both agree that the most important religious commands are to love God and to love your neighbour. The man seeks to justify his actions and asks ‘who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where a Jewish traveller is mugged while on the road and left for dead in the gutter. A passing priest and a religious expert find the wounded man. Both cross the road and leave him as they found him. Finally, a Samaritan passes by. Now, Jews and Samaritans were social enemies. Their culture differed. Their religion differed. We know the story. The Samaritan shows mercy to the wounded man, providing medical care and shelter. Jesus asks which of the three was a neighbour to the wounded man. The religious expert replies, “the one who showed him mercy”. Jesus then offers those famous but often ignored words, “now go and do the same.”

Many might sweetly sigh and conclude that we should simply be nice more often, but the moral of this story offers much more than that. First, the parable connects the idea of love to practical human rights (medical care, shelter). Love your neighbour isn’t a sentiment. This command means meeting the physical needs of others, even enemies, in times of need. The late, and occasionally great, Christopher Hitchens used to blow smoke about loving our enemies, claiming that the idea was wicked. The wickedness revealed in the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Senate report on CIA torture- both bitter fruits of a foreign policy hysteria that Hitchens himself endorsed- prove that torturing our enemies is hardly a superior tack.

Second, the parable subverts expectations in order to prioritise humanity over cultural differences. This is a narrative where the conventional good guys are bad guys and vice versa. The priests don’t help the wounded man. This isn’t even a story about a humble and devout Jew who helps a Samaritan. Here, the audience associates with the wounded protagonist only to be rescued by a loathed figure who represents ethnic and religious difference. This simple juxtaposition is hinged upon the act of mercy, whereby the Samaritan ignores cultural difference in order to acknowledge humanity.

Tony Abbott isn’t the bad guy in our story. As the parable points out, objecting to those we might consider villains is a distraction. Recently, prime ministers of every stripe - Christian, atheist, Liberal, Labor - have defended Australia’s abuse of asylum seekers. To be fair, these leaders also face a global refugee crisis without an easy solution. However, those that argue that refugees should be left to their fate or that we should only help those whose culture resembles ours are indeed like the priests in the story in as much as they ignore the wounded. They also ignore the example of the Samaritan, who did not object to someone’s difference but rather acknowledged their humanity.

No good guys. No bad guys. No points of difference. This story leaves us all with no room to move. The author did not intend it to. And there’s the rub for religious experts, or former prime ministers, asking the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ The parable of the Good Samaritan is designed in a way that leaves the command to love your neighbour without an exception. No cultural difference should contradict our common humanity. Right now, this story is challenging us to provide medical care and shelter to those who flee civil war, no matter where they’re from. It is teaching that we should offer asylum and resettlement to refugees, no matter their ethnicity or religion. This parable continues to illustrate the core ethic of Christ, no matter how much we’d like to reinterpret it: to love your neighbour is to provide human rights to everyone, particularly those who are different. Now go and do the same.

No exceptions.