Inspired by the work of my good friend, the Italian legal philosopher Paolo Silvestri, on taxation as gift and the question of "who is my neighbor", I have been returning to the parable of the Good Samaritan in the context of the coming debate about tax reform. We often forget that the parable is a direct engagement with the nature of legal knowledge and as such might be of interest to this group.
Recall that the impetus for the parable is actually a lawyer's question: after hearing that he must love his neighbor as himself, the lawyer asks, "and who is my neighbor?" It is a standard lawyer's move, one I make in my classroom every day: OK, we have to provide something for people in the category of "neighbor," so who is in that category? How far should we go? Where do we draw the line? Is the category of neighbor a slippery slope to oblivion? On the other hand, how do we distinguish this group of worthy neighbors from that group?
Jesus turns this question around in the parable--the issue as he reframes it becomes, "which of these acted as a neighbor?" In other words the focus is not on who counts as a neighbor but who does the neighboring. The neighbor is not the person in need now--the neighbor is the person doing the giving. Seen from that point of view, the answer is obvious, as the lawyer immediately recognizes--the Good Samaritan acted as a neighbor and the others did not.
This reorientation of the question--literally turning it around so its point of focus is reversed--becomes the resolution of the lawyer's slippery slope dilemma. The reorientation is effectuated with a surprisingly simple but brilliant perspectival shift: the giver and the recipient of the gift actually switch sides. The narrator of the story is now thinking not from the lawyer's or state's point of view, about how much giving is reasonable, how far shall we go in taking care of the needy, but from the point of view of the person in need: which among the people who pass along the road is my neighbor? It is now that person, the person in need who is doing the asking, not the lawyer, or by extension the state.
Abstracted from this particular context, what we have here is a different modality of governance knowledge. Rather than slippery slopes and reasonableness standards, Jesus gives us reorientations, perspectival switches. Taking the vantage point of another. What is remarkable is how simple the answer to the policy question then becomes.
We often hear that the Kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom, where the logic of our world does not hold. The challenge for those of us who are interested in peace and social justice then is how to make that kingdom--that different kind of polity and legality--a reality here and now, in the context in which we actually find ourselves. What is remarkable about this story is how simple it actually is. Even the lawyer stuck in his line drawing rhetoric can immediately do it when led to make the shift.
I wonder if this is the social movement we need at this moment, as we continue to debate health care and soon taxation in the US, as well as peace and security in a heightened nuclear age--a multitude of reorientations of legal knowledge rather than merely an argument within the parameters of legal logic. Next time I bring up the slippery slope in my classroom I will also encourage students to turn the question around and view the entire state apparatus doing the line drawing from another point of view.