Of Neighbors and Eternal Life

Sadao_Watanabe_The_Good_Samaritan_smWith the Zimmerman trial being reported in the news this last week the Good Samaritan parable strikes me as a timely commentary on the question of who is my neighbor? Of course this was at the heart of the lawyer’s questioning of Jesus. Jesus, side steps the question and elicits an answer from the lawyer to a slightly different question: which of the three, the Priest, Scribe and Samaritan acted as a neighbor? The lawyer now does some side stepping of his own and simply replies: the one who showed mercy. In telling the lawyer to go and do likewise, Jesus is answering the lawyer’s original question: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

So there are two questions here. The first is who is my neighbor? The second is what is what is my responsibility to my neighbor? The simple answer to the first question is everyone is my neighbor. You may question this as an impossibility? A simple definition of the word neighbor is the one who comes near. Therefore, for me it’s the second question that is the more significant. If everyone is my neighbor, the real rub is, so what do I owe them; what do they owe to me?

Understanding neighbor in this way, George Zimmerman became Trayvon Martin’s neighbor the moment he came near to him. Such a reading is dramatically at odds with the assumptions that underpin social relations in contemporary America. In our society, a working definition of neighbor might be, not the one who comes near to me, but the one who fears me or of whom I am afraid.

Why is this so? Do we really pose such a threat to one another? Is this a hangover from frontier culture in which the stranger was automatically experienced as a threat until discovered to be otherwise? Perhaps. Having lived in the UK for 30 years and now in the US, I notice how quick Americans are to enthusiastically shake hands with broad smiles. In England such behavior might imply particular interest being shown between people, otherwise the English tend to ignore one another. I have learned not to assume this in the American context. The person vigorously shaking my hand and broadly smiling at me with perfect teeth is not expressing any particular interest in me. He, for usually it’s men who behave like this is simply signaling to me that he poses no threat to me and is hoping I am likewise, nonthreatening.

Yet, the pioneer roots of American culture can’t explain the degree to which we now fear one another in modern America. Listening to the Gospel reading of The Good Samaritan, one sympathizes with Jesus as the lawyer attempts to cross-examine him. The overly litigious nature of American society both reflects and stimulates an environment of mutual fear and suspicion between us.

It seems to me that a better explanation of the situation we find ourselves in as neighbors to one another lies in the nature of modern society viewed from the helpful perspective of a theory called Spiral Dynamics http://spiraldynamics.org/ . Spiral Dynamics is a tool that I found very useful in my former life as a priest within a large secular organizational setting. Here, my task was to be the pastor to organizational structures and relationships.

Spiral Dynamics helps to analyze organizations, and by extension social structures in terms of types of cultural development it calls Memes. A meme is a particular location on an evolutionary continuum that helps to explain the dynamics of social relations and worldview. Spiral Dynamics assigns a color to each meme, which greatly aids comprehension. Each meme represents an organized shared system of values around which a culture structures itself. For instance, purple, tribal cultures based on blood or extended kinship ties, blue, hierarchical-authoritarian cultures, relying on complex stratified bureaucracies, where knowing one’s place in the order is a primary concern.  Orange, scientific- entrepreneurial cultures structure social relations around an ethos of progress, and wealth-creation. Whereas, green, communitarian- egalitarian culture bases its value system on shared notions of equality, consensus, and the common good. There are two rather interesting evolutionary stages identified as the yellow, systemic-integrative, and turquoise, holistic-interdependent memes.

Historically, it has been possible to identify a culture by reference to its monochrome memetic identity: purple, red, or blue, green, etc. It’s also possible to show how a society evolves through the hierarchy of memes; from purple or red to blue, from blue to orange, or from blue to orange to green.

In each memetic location, the concept of neighbor is given a dominant meaning. In a purple, tribal culture my neighbor is my kin or others similarly connected by virtue of belonging within the tribe. Those outside the tribe are not my neighbors, and in fact they are usually seen as my enemies. In blue, authoritarian- hierarchical culture my neighbor is someone of the same class, group, or occupational identity as me. In orange, scientific-entrepreneurial culture there exists a shared yet, individualistic concept of neighbor. Anyone who is not able to embody a strongly individualistic, progress or wealth-driven self-sufficiency is not my neighbor. In green, communitarian culture my neighbor is an extensive concept that includes everyone who agrees to be governed by a shared construction of the common good. Anyone who does not agree to this construction of the common good is not a neighbor, as those who resist the contemporary liberal social agenda, usually blue or orange meme individuals, come to quickly find out. No modern society has yet to achieve a secure hold on yellow or torquoise memes, although small groups among the elites do reflect these memetic locations.

Spiral Dynamics tells us a lot about our competing political and religious cultures. The Army and the Church are classic blue cultures. Republicans tend towards being blue- orange in culture. Democrats are heavily green with sometimes an orange, and sometimes a yellow tinge. Evangelical Christians sometimes are purple, sometimes blue. Roman Catholics tend toward the blue, with purple enclaves and with green on the liberal fringes. Episcopalians are almost uniformly green.

When a society displays a primary memetic location, there exists a consensus within that society concerning both the identity of, and obligations owed, between neighbors. In contemporary American culture there no longer is any consensus on neighborliness. Fear is generated between us as we struggle with competing purple, blue, orange and green notions of who is my neighbor. I suspect competing concepts of neighbor lie at the heart of the violent altercation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin leading to the tragic death of young Martin. Amidst the overwhelming confusions between who is neighbor and who is foe in our global, pluralistic society, Zimmerman seems to have relied upon a more primitive, purple, tribal classification. Zimmerman decided that Martin was not his neighbor, but his enemy; a conclusion reached through a complex process of classifying the identifiers (age, race, on foot rather than in a car, etc) of like and non-like.

Jesus lived in a society structured around two memetic locations. The dominant location was the blue culture of the Roman Empire, which imposed an authoritarian, bureaucratic enforcement of hierarchy and stratification. Along side this, and in reaction against it, there co-exited the earlier purple culture centered on tribal loyalties. Jesus exploits his listener’s purple, tribal construction of neighbor through his parable of the Good Samaritan. For them good and Samaritan couldn’t share the same mental space. In connecting good and Samaritan, Jesus was creating an identity conflict that threatened to burst open his hearers tribal construction of neighbor, or push them into cognitive shut-down.

Jesus conversation with the lawyer had a larger group of people eavesdropping-in on their conversation in a manner similar to our eavesdropping-in on the Zimmerman trial. Jesus invites the lawyer and the eavsdroppers into the turquoise, meme of the Kingdom of God. Here, there are no tribes, nations, or empires, only neighbors. In the Kingdom of God we are not concerned to discriminate between neighbor and non-neighbor on the basis of the costs to us of neighborliness. In the Kingdom of God we are invited to consider as our neighbors all who come near. Our only consideration should be the cost to them if we refuse to be a neighbor to them.

Jesus asked the lawyer: which of the three do you think was a neighbor to the injured man lying in the ditch? The lawyer replied, the one who showed mercy. Jesus said to him- go and do likewise!

The print appearing above is Sado Watanabe’s: The Good Samaritan

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