Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: DT. 30: 10-14; Ps. 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 34, 36-37; Col. 1: 15-20; Lk. 10: 25-37. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071413.cfm
In his recent book about the parables of Jesus (The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus), John Dominic Crossan poses the question: What happens to your world when the “best” people act badly and only the “worst” do what is right?
That scenario seems to be playing itself out in the case of Edward Snowden.
Snowden, you recall, is the NSA contractor and CIA employee who last month disclosed a vast secret program of U.S. government spying on its own citizens and on individuals, corporations, and governments throughout the world.
The program (Prism by name) seems to violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Snowden made his disclosures three months after James Clapper, the Director of U.S. intelligence had denied its existence in testimony (under oath) before the Senate Committee overseeing the U.S. intelligence program. Snowden’s disclosures also followed hot on the heels of President Obama’s publically expressed concern that China was illegally spying on the U.S. in exactly the same way (though on a smaller scale) that the U.S. turns out to have been spying on China and its own allies.
For his troubles in exposing such lies, hypocrisy, and violations of the Constitution, Snowden himself has been designated a spy, traitor, and enemy of the United States – categories applied to its worst enemies. As a pariah in his own country, he has fled the United States and sought asylum in various countries including China, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Snowden (and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International) alleges that if extradited to the U.S. he is unlikely to receive a fair trial, but instead to be tortured and indefinitely imprisoned like other whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning.
All of the countries just mentioned have histories less-than-friendly to U.S. interests, which they have each described as criminally imperialistic. Other “good” countries such as France and Germany have (under great pressure from the United States) refused Snowden asylum.
Meanwhile, James Clapper has not been charged with perjury, and President Obama has managed to deflect attention away from constitutional violations to the search for the fugitive Snowden.
In other words, the Snowden Affair presents us with a “Spy,” “Traitor,” and “Terrorist Sympathizer” obeying his conscience in his exposure of government crime. He has done the right thing. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, himself a constitutional lawyer, has been caught violating the Constitution, and the Director of Intelligence has been exposed as a perjurer. And on top of that, friendly countries often lauded by the United States as models of democracy refuse to respect International Law governing asylum seekers. Only the “bad countries” are willing to honor that law.
In this situation, the question Crossan posed earlier finds uncomfortable relevance: “What happens to your world if a story records that your “best” people act badly and only your “worst” person acts well?”
As I said, Crossan asks that question in the section of his book commenting on “The Good Samaritan” which is the focus of the gospel selection in today’s Liturgy of the Word.
The parable, of course, is very familiar. Almost all of us know it nearly by heart. Typically sermons find its point in simply calling us to be “follow the Samaritan’s example, treat everyone as your neighbor, and help those you find in trouble.”
That’s a good point, of course. But Jesus’ own intention went beyond simply providing an example of a good neighbor. More profoundly, it focused on the hypocrisy of “the good” and the virtues of designated enemies. As such, the story calls us to transcend those socially prescribed categories and look at actions rather than words of both the “good” and “bad.”
More specifically, the hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan. According hero status to such a person would be unthinkable for Jesus’ listeners. After all, Samaritans were social outcasts belonging to a group of renegade Jews who (by Jesus’ time) had been separated from the Jewish community for nearly 1000 years. They had also polluted the Jewish bloodline by intermarrying with the country’s Assyrian conquerors about 700 years earlier.
Jews considered Samaritans “unclean;” they were traitors, enemy-sympathizers, heretics and even atheists. They rejected Jewish understandings of Yahweh and the Temple worship that went along with it.
And yet in the story, Jesus finds the Samaritan to be more worthy, more pleasing in God’s eyes than the priest or Levite. That’s because the Samaritan’s actions speak much louder than the word “Samaritan” would allow. He is compassionate; so Jesus approves.
In the meantime, the priest and the Levite lack compassion. Their actions condemn them.
They say that slightly more than 50% of the American people think Edward Snowden is a traitor and spy. And this despite the fact that his accusers have advanced no evidence to that effect – and despite polls that indicate a solid majority believing that the government’s surveillance program is objectionable if not clearly unconstitutional.
Today’s parable invites us to reconsider – not just Snowden, but our very understanding of the world and its categories of “good” and “evil.”
Perhaps we’re looking for the real criminals, traitors, spies, and terrorists in exactly the wrong places.