by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 68 - Jan 2018

Even though Nick Spencer is the Research Director of Theos, I thought this was a rather lightweight book - until I got to the final chapter, which came as an unexpected surprise.

It is certainly easy to read. The first chapter gives a chatty overview of how politicians treat religion, leading to reflections on how we use language. We do get introduced to the language theories of Augustine and Wittgenstein, but gently.

Chapter 2 provides many examples of references to the Good Samaritan by politicians and church leaders. I imagine Spencer did a word search of Hansard and couldn’t resist the temptation to give us rather a lot of detail about speeches in Parliament. By the end I admit I was getting a bit bored. Still, points emerged to be analysed later in the book.

The next chapter gives an excellent overview of New Testament scholarship on the parable, explaining what Luke and Jesus might have intended. Again it is easy to follow, and for those not familiar with biblical scholarship, would make a good starting point. It finishes with a collection of points which can legitimately be drawn from it.

The final chapter draws on the earlier material to ask what political points the parable can justifiably support. Although it is a short chapter it is the most profound, so I shall describe it in more detail.

Many politicians have made dubious appeals to the Good Samaritan. Two well-publicised speeches illustrate the point, one by Margaret Thatcher and the other by Hilary Benn. Thatcher turned the parable from a story about helping somebody else to a story about having the means to help. Benn appealed to the principle of helping others in need to argue in favour of sending bombers to Syria.

Spencer then draws out two important features of the story’s context. The first is that Jesus transforms a question about the neighbour (‘Who is my neighbour?’) into a question about oneself (how to be a neighbour). The second is that Jesus responds to a question of definition (how to define neighbours) with an answer about action (‘Go and do likewise’).

We then turn to the philosopher John Rawls’ rules about religious discourse in public life. Recently Rawls has been the most influential defender of the view that religious doctrines should be excluded from political language. Those with power have an obligation to justify their actions in ways that seem acceptable and reasonable to those affected. Towards the end of his life, however, he softened his stance. Religious language might be acceptable if accompanied by ‘properly public reasons’:

While the wide view of public political culture allows us, in making a proposal, to introduce the Gospel story, public reason requires us to justify our proposal in terms of proper political values… In this way citizens who hold different doctrines are reassured (p. 152).

The position proved difficult to defend, and in another modification Rawls wrote that

the idea of public reason does not apply to all political discussions of fundamental questions, but only to discussions of those questions in what I refer to as the public political forum (p. 151).

This, in effect, produces a dualism between what can be said in public office and what can be said outside it. Spencer replies:

From everything we have seen so far in this book, however, we know that this is precisely what doesn’t happen.

On the contrary, believers and unbelievers alike appeal to the parable, whether in public office or not.

Some chaperone their citations, but most do not. And while none is ever so crass as to say, ‘Jesus told this story so my government is doing this’, the very purpose of referencing the parable when they have done so is to lend a moral weight, significance and force to what might otherwise be seen as a ‘merely’ political suggestion (p. 153).

This reviewer agrees with Spencer against Rawls, but for a reason the book does not mention: the secular taboo on anything that smacks of religion. If the parable were first told by Karl Marx, Winston Churchill or Nicole Kidman, Rawls would not agonise over its legitimacy in public discourse.

Spencer summarises that the parable is problematic for the political right because of the implied obligation to help whoever is in need, and for the political left because it highlights voluntary individual action.

At the very end, we are left with a reflection on the importance of biblical references:

By drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan to make a political point, you are also making a bigger-than-political point. Put another way, by anchoring political ideas in biblical ones in this way, you are revealing the ground beneath politics, saying something about life and truth and meaning.

I highly recommend this book.


Jonathan Clatworthy is a Trustee and Vice-President of Modern Church and author of Why Progressives Need God: An ethical defence of monotheism.