Sunday, July 11, 2004

Ivan Illich and the Story of the Good Samaritan

Today’s Gospel reading in the Catholic Church cycle was from Luke 10, Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.  I was reminded that for the late Christian social philosopher Ivan Illich, this story was one of the central innovations of the Christian faith.


And it made me think of a story told by Illich’s friend Lee Hoinacki a couple of years ago, not long before Illich’s death.  (I’m quoting from memory here.)


In his story, Hoinicki story recalled a time he was accompanying Illich at a workshop in New York State in the 1960s, as I recall.  It was a seminar for corporate executives, most or all of whom at this workshop were men, I take it.  Illich was known for his thoughtful sociological/philosophical critiques of the often negative effects of modern institutions like education on the freedom of individuals and our interactions with others.


Illich had been speaking all morning, and Hoinicki told him at the lunch break, “Ivan, I’m not sure you’re really getting your message across to this group.  Maybe you should start the afternoon session by telling them a little more of where you’re coming from.”


Illich took his friend’s advice, so after lunch he began by saying, “It’s been suggested to me that Ineed to tell you a little more about where I’m coming from.  So, I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen…”


He proceeded to recite the entire Nicene Creed.  When he was finished, he said, “Okay, that’s where I’m coming from.  Now let’s discuss it.”


The businessmen just sat there dumbfounded.


How Illich viewed the story of the Good Samiritan is illustrated in part by this excerpt from an interview he did in on the Canadian Broadcasting Network, called “The Corruption of Christianity” (2000): 


Some thirty years ago, I went into sermons from the early third century into the nineteenth century dealing with this story of the Samaritan, and I found out that most preachers, when they comment on that passage, comment on it in order to show how we ought to behave towards our neighbour, when in fact this is the opposite of what Jesus, who tells that story of the Samaritan, wanted to point out.  The Pharisees came to ask Him, “Master, Teacher, tell us who is my neighbor?”  They didn’t ask him, how does one behave to one’s neighbour?  They asked him, point blank, the question: Who is the guy whom you call neighbour?  And he, as a story, told them a man was going down to Jericho, feel among robbers, was beaten up and left wounded.  A teacher goes by, a priest goes by, sees him and walks on.  And then an outsidercomes along, the traditional enemy, and turns to the wounded man, as an internal turning, and picks him up, takes him into his arms and brings him to the inn.  So he answers them, “My neighbour is whom I decide, not whom I have to choose.”  There is no way of categorizing who my neighbour ought to be.  This doctrine about the neighbour which this guy, Jesus, brings into conversation, is utterly destructive of ordinary decency, of ethical behaviour and to say this today is as surprising as it was at the beginning.


… The Master told them who your neighbour is is not determined by your birth, by your condition, by the language which you speak, by the ethnos, which means really the mode of walking which has become proper to you, but by you.  You can recognize the other man who is out of bounds culturally, who is foreign linguistically, who – you can say by providence or by pure chance – is the one who lies somewhere along your road in the grass and create the supreme form of relatedness which is not given by creation but created by you.

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