Friday, July 3, 2020

Selfish and Proud: The Good Samaritan, Octavia Butler, and Wearing a Mask

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

I wrote this essay in late May--started it shortly before the murder of George Floyd-- but did not post or publish it. In light of the recent spikes of COVID-19, it seems appropriate to post it now.

May 24/25, 2020:

“Selfish and Proud,” the sign proclaimed at a protest outside the Pennsylvania Capitol Building. After years of people saying the quiet parts out loud, that message should not have been so jarring.

But it was to me.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the fissures in American society, divisions always present for those with eyes to see, but now even more visible to everyone. It’s more than tribalism; it includes racism; it involves the fact that many in the United States must have an enemy to hate—hatred of the “other”—even if it means creating an enemy to build, ironically, a “community” at least partially based on a shared fear or hatred of the “other.”

Even the approaching Memorial Day or the grim milestone of approximately 100,000 dead, probably more, of COVID-19 has not stemmed the tide of hatred. One need not look further than the twitter account of the president of the United States, who retweeted vicious attacks against his opponents—false charges of murder, mocking others’ appearances in various ways, and calling one former opponent a “skank.” Or some of his followers who recently hanged an effigy of their governor with the song “Proud to be an American” blaring in the background and with a sign “sic semper tyrannis” attached to the effigy—more likely, under the circumstances, a reference to John Wilkes Booth than to Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.  

During this pandemic, Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower, has rightfully regained its reputation as a “prescient vision” of a dystopian future society. Butler considered her works as “cautionary tales,” critiques of current society that included consequences that will occur in the relatively near future if society does not change its patterns of behavior. Butler extrapolates from what she saw as current trends—the increasing divide between rich and poor, the changes in the earth’s climate, the fear of crime, and all of the centrifugal forces that were “tearing . . . society apart,”—and she examines the resulting issues of social power and its effects, examples that she “pulled out of the newspapers.” Specifically, the two books in the parable series she called “fairy tales” that highlighted problems in society and suggested how to make the world a better place: “It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done and obviously [there] are people who are running this country who don’t care.”

The novel’s main character, Lauren Oya Olamina, lives in a small, enclaved community, inside walls that they hope will protect their community from the dangers of their dystopian society. One by one, however, people in the community begin to be killed. Thieves regularly break in to steal food or other valuables. The attacks worsen, and eventually Olamina and two other survivors escape certain death and travel north to find a safer place to live.

As they travel north toward Oregon, Olamina begins to build a community of fellow travelers,  especially after she acts as a “Good Samaritan” to help people in trouble (Olamina was born with a condition called “hyperempathy syndrome” that causes her to intensely feel the pain of others). They eventually reach what appears to be a safe place, and there they build their community, “Acorn.” The narrative ends with the New Testament parable of the Sower to make clear that the quest of Olamina and the community gathering around her are to be seeds sown upon the good soil that bring forth good fruit, just as in the parable.

A quote from Olamina in the second novel in the series, Parable of the Talents, illustrates why Butler uses parables as the foundation of her moral tales: “My father loved parables—stories that taught, stories that presented ideas and morals in ways that made pictures in people’s minds . . . . Because he believed stories were so important as teaching tools.”

Although the book Parable of the Sower takes the parable of the same name as its primary image, it is clear that the parable of the Good Samaritan is the foundation on which Olamina’s community is built.

The impetus for Jesus telling the Good Samaritan comes in an exchange with an expert in Jewish law. The lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and, after Jesus responds by asking him what he had read in the law, supplies the answer:  Love God and one’s neighbor. When Jesus responds that he had given the correct answer, the lawyer then asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replies with a parable that describes the extraordinary actions of a man, a hated Samaritan, who assists another human being in need, a man half dead by the side of the road who had already been ignored by two religious people who saw the man but did not stop to help. The Samaritan, in contrast, had compassion for the man, treats the man’s wounds, brings him to an inn, takes care of him, and then pays the innkeeper to take care of the man in his absence.

This parable of a despised Samaritan demonstrating what it means to love one’s neighbor makes an important transition in the definition of neighbor, one with deep roots in Jesus’s Jewish tradition. The lawyer cited an important verse from Leviticus (19:18b) “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” The parable that Jesus tells, however, emphasizes a key verse that comes just a few verses later in Leviticus (19:34b-c): “you shall love the alien as yourself . . . . I am the Lord your God.”

The parable thus demolishes any distinction between neighbor and the “other” (e.g., alien, immigrant, or other perceived opponent) in a way that honors the juxtaposition of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”—quoted by the lawyer and affirmed by Jesus—and the “you shall love the alien as yourself.” The alien, the “other,” is also one’s neighbor.

At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer who in the parable had acted as a neighbor. The lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.”

What is Jesus’s response?: “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise” is command that one would assume anyone claiming to follow Jesus’s teachings would take to heart. That would be a false assumption, since it appears that some of the loudest voices in what passes for Christianity today in the United States rejects one of his major teachings: to love one’s neighbor in word and actions.

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