The parable of The Good Samaritan has been retold in real life with a nasty twist, as if adapted by Quentin Tarantino. The bystander was cast to type: a pensioner in a sleepy English village, who died saving the octogenarian victim. And the villain was the archetypal Daily Mail bad guy, a convicted killer who had only recently been released. But the victim, who survived the ordeal, was a paedophile, convicted some 30 years after his crime and also recently released.
This tragic story newly sharpens the edge of Jesus’s once-radical parable. Christ’s original question was: “Who is my neighbour?” Today we are less likely to ask that of our potential saviours than we are of the people we might help, directly or through our taxes. Yesterday’s news feeds our fear that our neighbours are more likely than not to be bad eggs: benefit fraudsters, bogus asylum seekers, paedophiles or jihadist terrorists.
That presumption turns the original parable on it’s head. In Jesus’s story, all the question marks are over the passers-by and the victim is assumed to be innocent. Now, we doubt the virtue of the apparent victims, wondering if they really are as deserving as they make themselves out to be. And so where once the duty of assistance was assumed unless shown to be null and void, we are increasingly imposing conditionality from the outset.
For that reason, these events frame the modern-day question of what being a good neighbour means all too vividly: are we willing to help those we see in need, even though it will turn out that some of them, perhaps even a significant number, have done less to deserve our help than others? Of course, if we happen to know for a fact that someone is a nasty piece of work, we might not put ourselves at risk. But most of the time we don’t, and even if someone has a criminal record, we cannot say whether they have put all that behind them and are now living blameless lives.
That is why neighbourliness isn’t about justice. Justice can only be dispensed when you have all the facts in front of you. When you don’t, the result of helping can sometimes be terrible unfairness, as in this case, where the more innocent man died. Being a good neighbour is about compassion, which is as warm-blooded as justice is cool-headed. Society needs both justice and compassion, a head and a heart, if it is to be civilised. We should not therefore allow stories of undeserving beneficiaries of aid put us off giving help where we see it needed, and asking questions later. Compassion, like justice, must start with a presumption of innocence, with all the risks that this entails.