Virtues for Civil Discourse: Mercy

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on four prior entries: civility, tolerancehumility, and justice. Today, I want to turn to the fifth virtue, mercy which I call “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”      

Since the Gospel reading today is the Good Samaritan parable I thought I would reflect with you on that parable. But I would like to do it today—that is, after a week of racist killings in the US. I want to suggest that if mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” entering into civic discourse is an act of mercy!     

But, we should not be thinking of ourselves as simply being merciful when we enter into civic discourse. We should think of entering into the civic discourse just as Jesus wants us to hear his parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, that we allow ourselves to be decentered.  

   

I hope you find in this reflection on the good Samaritan that we willingly allow the decentering to occur. And if we do, think of the civil discourse we can have today about race and violence in America and think of how much violence and power in America needs to be decentered. And let us think that just as Jesus decenters the scribe with the parable, Jesus can decenter us in our civil discourse.       

Too often our familiarity with the Good Samaritan parable blinds us to its deliberately de-centering purpose, a purpose I now want to highlight.  First, the parable is an odd one because its end is, unless we are not attentive, a reversal of the beginning. The parable is answering the question, “who is my neighbor?” and so, as the story begins, we quickly begin to think that the neighbor is the wounded man on the road.  But by the end, the scribe, when asked again the original question, responds that the neighbor is the one who shows mercy.  

Jesus’s parable teaches us not to look for a neighbor to love, but rather to be a neighbor shows mercy.  We give that answer because when hearing the story, we see that the center of the story is not the man on the road, but rather the Samaritan. That being said, sometimes we think the command to “Go and do likewise” is as easy to do as hearing the parable. In fact, in the reception of the parable, this surprising shift to the agent of mercy prompted the church before modernity to read it not primarily as a moral command, as it is read today, but as the narrative of our salvation. Starting with Clement of Alexandria (ca.  150-ca. 215), then Origen (ca.  184- ca.254), Ambrose (339-390) and finally, Augustine (354-430), the Good Samaritan parable is the narrative of our merciful redemption.  Later from Venerable Bede (673–735) to Martin Luther (1483-1546), preachers and theologians appropriate and modify the narrative, but in each instance, the narrative is first and foremost the Gospel in miniature, a story of what Christ has accomplished for us, so that we, in turn, can go and do likewise.  It is much more than a story of moral instruction.     

The basic allegorical expression of the parable is this: the man who lies on the road is the exiled Adam, wounded (by sin), suffering outside the city gates of Eden.  The priest and the Levite (the law and the prophets), pass him by because they are unable to do anything for Adam.  Along comes the Good Samaritan (Christ), a foreigner, one not from here, who tends to Adam’s wounds (our salvation), takes him to the inn (the church), gives a down payment of two denarii (the two commandments of love), leaves him with the innkeeper (St. Paul), and promises to return for him (the second coming), when he will pay in full (our redemption) and take him with him into his Kingdom (the eschaton). This interpretation of the parable shows us that it is first a narrative of Jesus’ redemptive work and then a call to imitation; the parable reveals that the mercy of Jesus makes possible our being merciful.  This is a lesson we must never forget.  

There are then three successive role reversals in the parable:  First, originally on hearing the parable we think the neighbor in the parable is the wounded man, but we quickly turn to the Samaritan who so captures our attention that we confess him the neighbor.  Then upon learning how for centuries the parable was preached, we realize that Christ in talking about the wounded man, Adam, is actually talking about us: we are no longer listeners to the parable but one of the two main characters. At this stage we are brought into the parable to understand not first and foremost what we must do, but what we must learn, that is, that we have received mercy first from the Samaritan.  When we learn that then we understand that having received mercy, we must be merciful.  This is the third level of role reversals: only by having realized how wounded we are, are we capable of being merciful.  This third level, that the competency for being merciful rests on the humbling self-knowledge of being wounded, is the final role reversal: we can only follow the Samaritan if we receive him first.     

Maybe on praying over the Good Samaritan parable we can enter into the chaos of civic discourse, mercifully, not to proclaim our solutions but to be decentered once again.

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James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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