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The stranger who could save you

30 September 2016

The ethics of global relationships are about loving surprising neighbours, says Rowan Williams

“WHO is my neighbour?” the lawyer asked Jesus. Why didn’t Jesus give him a clearer answer? Why didn’t he say simply “Everyone,” and leave it at that?

The story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus told in response to that question, is a story not just about whom we are supposed to love, but how we become lovable. It is a story about how we recognise our lives as being bound up with the actions and being of a stranger.

It operates at several levels. Jesus turns that question — Who is my neighbour? — back to us. A neighbour is not somebody sitting over there, passively waiting for me to be good to him or her. The neighbour is me, already involved in the life of another, already moving towards someone else: not passive, but active.

It is for us to define ourselves as neighbours by our actions. It is not a matter of deciding who out there deserves to be loved by you. It is a question of your decision to be a neighbour; your decision to be someone who offers life to others. This is a basic choice, which turns our lives into life-giving realities.

Looking at this in the opposite direction, to love our neighbour is to love the person who can save our lives. But the extra catch in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we never know quite who that person is: it is likely to be the most improbable person around, so our openness to neighbourliness has to be a profound, all-encompassing, all-embracing thing.


APPLYING the parable more broadly, the ethics of global relationships are not about constructing a system of universal morality; it is not a question of universal benevolence, or of saying that the whole world is my friend. Rather, it is about recognising a summons to be a life-giver; to be to others the surprising stranger who brings them alive. And the corollary of this is that we must expect to be brought alive by surprising strangers.

Of course, not one of us exists in a vacuum: our human life is constantly receiving who we are from those around us and, in turn, giving our life that they might be alive.

The consequences of this interdependence may not always be what we would wish for. In our human lives, we are related, always and already, in ways that we never chose and never planned. We are embarrassingly bound up in the life of everybody else around us. We would much rather not be affected by the embarrassing failures of the human race at large; but we are bound in already.


IF WE decide to be a neighbour — if we decide to embark on a style of life that gives life to others — we are therefore not doing something in a vacuum. Rather, we are recognising and acting out the truth that is deepest in us.

To speak of the ethics of creating relationships is, therefore, not to speak of a decision to be good or nice, against the odds; rather, it is to speak of a decision to be what we are. When I decide to be a neighbour, and when I decide to be the one who gives life, I decide to be what I most deeply am. Conversely, when we create enemies rather than neighbours, we are doing something unnatural.

If we recognise that evil is unnatural — which is one of the great and important teachings of classical theology — it follows that when we try hard to be neighbours, and encourage others to do the same, we are not going against the grain. On the contrary, we are acknowledging that the deepest condition of our humanity is recognition, interaction, and the exchange of life.

This implies that when I identify someone as a stranger or enemy, I am alienating some part of myself; I am making myself a stranger and an enemy; I am losing something of who I am.


A SIMILAR idea is at the very heart of the Church: the Church is about that picture of ourselves being diminished by the diminishing of another; of every member of the body suffering because another suffers, or rejoicing because another rejoices. But — in the Church and in the world — this implies a need to pay attention: a close, realistic, patient, and loving absorption of the specifics of where we are.

If we are to discover what it might be to give life here — at this moment, in this relationship — we need also to have our eyes and ears and hearts keenly attuned to where there is death in our situation. We must discern, by paying careful attention, what are the needs to which we are actually responding.

The ethics of global relationships are therefore a matter of having faith in a universal and given human solidarity; recognising an involvement with one another that is already there; and then having the courage to behave on the basis that those things are true. In short, the ethics of global relationships are a matter of loving the stranger as the one who could save our lives.


WHEN I am asked, suddenly, questions about who I am, who is God, and what is the meaning of life, I try to speak briefly, personally, and as a Christian. Who am I? I am someone called by name by my Creator; I am someone whose distinctive humanity is called into being, because God wants it to be, and loves it because he wants it to be. And that calling into being, immediately, eternally, sets me in relation with all those others whose names are being called.

Who is God — the one who calls? God is the unimaginable, loving intelligence, from whose everlasting action comes everything, and whose everlasting, loving intelligent action is both focused utterly on you and me, and on every other being that is made.

And the meaning of life is that I and you should so grow together in our wonder and delight at each other, and our willingness to serve each other, that eventually we will grow into a fullness of conscious joy and love in relation to God, which nothing can ever take away. That is a bit telegraphic, but that is what I believe.


This is an extract, edited by Duncan McCall from a longer lecture and the questions that followed, delivered on Monday of last week. A podcast of the full lecture is at: www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/podcasts/who-is-my-neighbour-the-ethics-of-global-relationships-2/.

This is the first in a series of free lectures on “Who is my neighbour?”, to be given at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, this autumn. For more information, visit www.smitf.org

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