Paul Vallely: There's more than one way to kick a tramp

We shake our heads at the apparent callousness of those who passed a sick man in the snow, but are we any better?

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We all have feet of clay. A memory returns from time to time of a tramp who surprised me outside a London theatre demanding money. In some imperceptible way I felt his sudden appearance and looming presence was a threat to my young son and I told him to go away. "Why did you say that Dad?" my son said afterwards. "All he wanted was a cup of tea." It was a good question.

I thought of him again when the news came through of the 77-year-old man who had collapsed on the pavement on his way to the doctors in well-heeled Salisbury, and who lay there for almost five hours while perhaps hundreds of people walked or drove by. Brian Courtney developed hypothermia and was almost dead by the time someone finally called an ambulance.

The tabloids were outraged, but what was more revealing were the comments their online readers left beneath the story. It was reasonable to assume the man was drunk or sleeping rough. To speak to him risked being abused or thumped. Get real, one said. "I'm surprised there weren't crowds of school kids all filming him on their mobile phones," said another shamelessly. This is the way we harden our hearts.

But only in the frozen south. This would never happen in the north of England, opined a Lancastrian and a Geordie, dangerously, on one website. But then the neglected man's daughter expressed surprise that it could have happened in friendly Salisbury which appeared full of kind people – who, in the event, left her father unconscious on the frozen pavement as they went about their Christmas shopping.

Is modern life diminishing compassion? Archaeological remains of early humans show disabled individuals were cared for by the rest of the group. Indeed, evolutionary biologists have suggested that compassion has been an important component in the way we create community.

Big cities seem to attenuate that. In a place like London, there are too many people, not enough time and so many important things to be busily done. In the capital, anyone who talks to, let alone helps, a stranger is an object of suspicion. Only mad people speak to others on the Tube or in the streets.

Boris Johnson, that celebrated font of blunt common sense, once said that people should intervene when seeing antisocial behaviour. But he did a 180-degree U-turn when he became Mayor of London, saying, "Don't get involved, move away." That vicious circle ends, as it did on the streets of New York earlier this year, with two dozen people ignoring a stabbed man for nearly two hours as he lay dying on the street after saving a woman from being mugged. There, someone did emerge from a nearby building to photograph the bleeding man on his mobile phone, but did nothing to help him.

Compassion is a quality upon which religion has traditionally placed great emphasis. Buddhism sees the very essence of a spiritual life as taking our animal instinct to protect our kith and kind and training it; through meditation we can widen and deepen our compassion until it becomes universal. The Koran opens by addressing Allah who is Compassionate and Merciful – and the quality is so elevated that the Prophet Muhammad says that God will forgive the sins of anyone who has shown one act of compassion. A believer who is not compassionate is no believer at all. Indeed, there is no mainstream religion which does not teach compassion. "If you want others to be happy, practise compassion," says the Dalai Lama. "If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

It was interesting that, without exception, the account in every newspaper of the Salisbury incident called the person who finally called the ambulance a Good Samaritan. Though research suggests that people with a religious faith are more likely to give others both time and money, in the original Bible story from which the Good Samaritan is taken the two characters who walk by on the other side of the road – without helping a mugged man – were both figures of religious authority. Through pride or disdain, they were unwilling to make themselves ritually unclean by touching the wounded victim. They mistook the formularies and observances of religion for its substance, which is to do to others as you would have them do to you. Small wonder that in caste-ridden India the Good Samaritan features prominently in Dalit theology.

But the Salisbury incident was not about pride or disdain. It was about fear. Martin Luther King saw that. Perhaps the priest and Levite feared the robbers were still around, he mused. "Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking ... in order to lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked, was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' "

It's a question we all ask, without waiting for an answer. It's significant that the story of the Good Samaritan is told in response to a question from a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to create wriggle-room. Who is my neighbour, he asks, looking to limit liability. In Greek, a neighbour was someone who lived nearby; in Hebrew, it was someone with whom you had an association. The unwelcome answer the lawyer gets is that anyone you encounter in your daily life is your neighbour.

Compassion is not an emotion but a process. First we need the interweaving of self and other that is empathy; then we must understand how best to alleviate the other's suffering; and finally, we need to act, for sympathy without action is merely pity. But perhaps there is something more. In the parable, the Samaritan doesn't just help; he inconveniences himself, he sacrifices his own goods – oil and wine and money – to assist, and without the expectation of return. He acts with some courage, risking ambush or rejection.

That is far more costly than most of the Christmas gifts we're shopping for just now. And it is more than was needed last week in Salisbury. All it took was one person to dial 999 and when someone did that the ambulance arrived within two minutes and delivered Mr Courtney into intensive care.

What is more disturbing is not our normative negligence but a contemporary callousness evident in our social relationships. The other news item last week to mention a Good Samaritan involved a woman in Bristol who came to the aid of a man who was having a seizure by the side of the road – and had her smart new mountain bike stolen as she administered first aid to the stranger.

It was chilling, too, to hear a homeless man say on the radio that when he slept rough he lay his head down next to a dustbin; it was smelly but it hid his head from the sight of any passing thugs who might be tempted to kick it in as he slept. Anyone who would do that is pathologically unhinged, of course, but such an act is only a wild magnification of an alienation that has taken place in all of us. We all have feet of clay.

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