ISIS And The Good Samaritan


(H/T NBC News)

Last night was the season premiere of 60 Minutes.

The show focused on the rise of ISIS and the West’s work-in-progress response.

It was a heartbreaking and disturbing thing to watch. Between the blurred out video clips of ISIS militants mowing down scores of unarmed men in a ditch and the story of a woman whose friends were abducted, raped, and sold into slavery, I was ready to pull the airstrike trigger myself.

I have to be honest, thoughts of “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” were not floating around in my mind while I watched the horror unfold on television. The thoughts floating around in my mind were more like, “We need to wipe these monsters off the face of the earth.”

Obviously, it wasn’t my best Christian thought moment, but frankly it’s hard for me to hear stories about children watching their parents murdered in front of them before they too are slaughtered and not think that the only solution to all of this violence is greater violence.

But in the midst my holy wrath I found myself unable to push out of my mind something I had read earlier in the day from noted Vanderbilt professor Amy-Jill Levine.

Yesterday, she wrote an op-ed piece for the CNN Belief Blog entitled 4 Teachings From Jesus That Everybody Gets Wrong. It’s a fascinating reexamination of some of Jesus’ best known parables that challenges many of our commonly held assumptions about what he was actually trying to say. Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

While I’m not sure I agree with what seemed to me to be the implied notion of her article – that the parables have one particular meaning, rather than multiple plausible interpretations – her take on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally made me stop and say, “Whoa.”

We all know the story about the man in need who gets overlooked by religious leaders, only to eventually receive aid from someone those religious leaders had marginalized – a Samaritan.

But according to Levine, that is a misreading of the parable.

The parable is often seen as a story of how the oppressed minority – immigrants, gay people, people on parole – are “nice” and therefore we should check our prejudices.
Samaritans, then, were not the oppressed minority: They were the enemy. We know this not only from the historian Josephus, but also from Luke the evangelist.
Just one chapter before our parable, Jesus seeks lodging in a Samaritan village, but they refuse him hospitality.
Moreover, Samaria had another name: Shechem. At Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped or seduced by the local prince. At Shechem, the murderous judge Abimelech is based.
We are the person in the ditch, and we see the Samaritan. Our first thought: “He’s going to rape me. He’s going to murder me.”
Then we realize: Our enemy may be the very person who will save us. Indeed, if we simply ask “where is Samaria today?” we can see the import of this parable for the Israeli/Palestinian crisis.

Obviously, the Israeli/Palestinian crisis is the most direct comparison for a parable told by an ancient Jewish teacher, but while I was watching 60 Minutes and fantasizing about wiping ISIS off the map, I couldn’t get Amy-Jill Levine’s Good Samaritan reassessment out of my mind.

That is to say, I couldn’t stop imagining myself laying stranded in a ditch and looking up to see an ISIS militant dressed all in black standing above me. But then instead of pulling out a gun to shoot me or a butcher’s knife to cut off my head, he extends his hand to help me out of the ditch.

But as Levin astutely calls our attention to, it’s that sort of disturbingly bizarre imagine that is the very sort of thing Jesus is trying to get his audience to imagine.

But to be honest, it’s a image that really ticks me off.


Because it forces me to humanize ISIS militants. It forces me to remember that despite the atrocities I witness on TV, there are actually real human beings behind those black masks.

People who act like monsters to be sure, but people who were created in the image of God just like me. They’ve absolutely distorted that image in profoundly perverse ways, but if there’s any truth to what Jesus said about the Good Samaritan, then we have to force ourselves to consider the possibility that they’re not actually altogether evil.

That they have the potential to do good.

That the Good Samaritan could be the Good ISIS militant reaching out to help us even as we rain fire and destruction down on them from the heavens.

Look, I love Jesus and proudly call him Lord and Savior, but I have to confess that simply writing that sentence about an ISIS Good Samaritan, let alone allowing for its possibility in the real world makes my soul cringe.

Frankly, it infuriates me to think that a member of ISIS could be anything other than absolute evil.

And I think that’s exactly the reaction Jesus was trying to provoke.

It’s easy to think of the Good Samaritan as a virtuous, unjustly marginalized person, but to think of our arch enemy as the Good Samaritan, to say nothing of simply a human being made in the image of God, is nearly incomprehensible.

Which is what made we say, “Whoa.”

It made me say “whoa” because suddenly the situation in the Middle East – to say nothing of my own battles with people in my life here at home – just got way more complicated.

You see, it was easy for me to want to pull the trigger on the airstrike when I thought of ISIS militants as nothing more than the devil incarnate. But if Jesus is right and I have to consider the possibility that at least some of them could be Good Samaritans, then I’m left having to imagine a new way to respond to my enemies.

And can I be honest once more?

I’m not very good at that.

I’m a wanna be pacifist. I can talk about peace and non-violence till the cows come home, but when it comes to situations like ISIS the only response I can conceive of that will “actually work” is a violent one – even though in the back of my mind I know that violence only perpetuates more violence.

One thing I hear from my sold-out pacifist friends is that the reason people incorrectly view pacifism as “doing nothing” is that those people aren’t doing the work of trying to imagine possible alternative responses to violence other than more violence.

I am one of those people.

I lack a holy imagination.

I lack the imagination to conceive of any sort of response to ISIS other than a violent one.

And I’m sorely lacking the sort of imagination it takes to see an ISIS militant as a potential Good Samaritan.

So I pray.

I pray for peace.

I pray for protection.

And I pray for a better, holier imagination that can see the imago dei in my enemies and envision a way of responding to their actions that doesn’t simply bring more violence and brokenness into an already violent and broken world.

Because if I can’t do that, if I can’t even imagine the possibility that my enemy could be the Good Samaritan helping me out of a ditch, then I’m not sure I can keep calling myself a follower of Jesus.