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The Political Samaritan: How power hijacked a parable by Nick Spencer

15 December 2017

Peter Selby considers the political uses of the Good Samaritan

HAS the parable of the Good Samaritan suffered the fate of the victim in the story, as the cover note puts it, “mugged for political ends, ignored by passers-by, and then left for half dead on the edge of the English language”? Is Nick Spencer successful in achieving a rescue in this engagingly written, wide-ranging, and important book?

The text of the parable on the opening page is followed by a brief reflection on the part played by religion politically, in Britain in particular, and makes clear that this book is part of the author’s overarching concern to rehabilitate faith’s prophetic place in national life. Looking carefully at the way in which this parable has been understood and used is one outworking of that concern, and a particularly revealing one.

The sheer range of the parable’s political uses, breathlessly described in chapter two, brings the reader up short: back bench and front bench, well known and not so well known, powerful rhetoric and casual reference — all these and more Spencer lays before us. There are uses that show some acquaintance with the parable’s full content, and others, more frequent, that seem no more than clichés about “not walking by on the other side”, one of the most common.

In general, the author describes these uses without caricature and with sympathy, but there is no disguising the devastating conclusion: this is a parable used for a multitude of purposes, often on both sides of the same argument, and by the end of the chapter the reader is bound to be asking whether there is any value in using this parable for political purposes.

At this point, one might expect a chapter on “why all these people got it wrong, and this is how to get it right”, but that is not Spencer’s strategy. Rather, he makes a careful examination of theological interpretations of the parable, from the most ancient to the most modern, with their varied accounts of who is represented by the victim and who by the neighbour, and what this act of rescue amounted to. This brings the author to the conclusion that, as with the politicians, there are aspects of truth in many of these efforts, but not one that we can say for certain was right.

But the reader is not simply left in perplexity. Spencer is clear that, alongside truths, some interpretations are definitely false to the parable, whether it is Margaret Thatcher’s individualism or Hilary Benn’s use of it to justify military intervention in Syria (however much his intention was to save lives).

Rather, the very elusiveness of the political Samaritan, with the parable’s refusal to answer questions such as “Who is right?” and “Who is victim?”, reflects its location as the turning back by Christ of what he was asked: this is an “answer” by changing the question. More than that, this journey through the political Samaritan’s uses/misuses, meanings, and citations leaves us with whole new sets of questions about the politics of our society and the place of religion within it, where the author makes intriguing connections and asks provocative questions.

For instance, is the narrative about religion’s decline in contemporary Britain missing something, and is “secular” political language the only kind of language that we should feel free to use? Is the parable, like the victim in the story, half-dead, only fit to be passed by? Or is it still — and, by extrapolation, is religion still — holding some questions to the politics of the public arena which otherwise go by default? The book ends with the assertion, after all the exploring, that there is life in this parable of which those who are active in the public square, whether as politicians or as theologians, can still avail themselves.

Even if the politicians may need some encouragement to read this book, there will be preachers and theologians who will recall having said something like “The parable of the Good Samaritan has suffered from over-familiarity,” and have gone on to hope that their audience will recognise that in this sermon, or this exegesis, at last they have heard the “right” account of its meaning — and there will be others who recognise that strategy as one that they have heard deployed too many times to trust it yet again. The reality displayed by this book is that learning comes from critical exploration, and that learning is profoundly critical both of our politics and of our religion.

The only pity is that the publisher (presumably) thought that a sensational subtitle about the “hijacking” of this parable by power, and the blurb’s reference to “the killer question”, “who gets it right?”, might sell the book. Who knows? But this work is not to be sensationalised: it is too important for that.


The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.


The Political Samaritan: How power hijacked a parable
Nick Spencer
Bloomsbury £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

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