Thus Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Christ to them. With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.Acts 8: 5-6
Today in the reading from Acts we hear of the persecution of the church following the martyrdom of Stephen, and of Saul’s key role in that persecution. Saul is working to purify Judaism from this recently introduced foreign element. Perhaps there is little that we human beings need to fear more than our tendency to create a “pure” society or culture. In the 20th century we know all too well the effect of the Nazis compulsion to form a perfect Aryan culture. Yet, in truth, we must acknowledge that this temptation is always present among us. During the last pontificate, we often heard talk, about a “purified church.” This always requires the exclusion or elimination of those who do not meet the standards that we have set, and our innate tendencies to tribalism and xenophobia are always seeking the security and gratification of being only with and for “our own kind.”
In the face of this persecution, however, we read that Philip goes to the city of Samaria. Samaria is a key “character” in the gospel narratives. We read of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman, of the Good Samaritan, and of the one out of the ten lepers Jesus cures that comes back to offer thanks as being a Samaritan. The Samaritans are “the other” par excellence for the Jews, yet time and again they become central in their openness and response to Jesus. So again as Philip proclaims the Christ to the Samaritans, “the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip.”
Yesterday I was listening to a “Hidden Brain” podcast about the psychological sources of religion. The researcher was pointing out that religion emerges in human culture when human beings no longer live only in small groups of 50 or 100 at most, but begin to live in much larger societies. As they do so, the basic reason to be just and fair with each other, that is our commonality, is no longer enough to foster proper social behavior. And so, the “idea” of a god who will punish our evil and selfish actions begins to emerge. Even to this day, the research indicates that a view of god as vengeful and punishing is more effective in deterring anti-social behavior than a belief in a forgiving and loving god.
Yet what we read in the gospel today makes clear that Jesus’ God is not an angry and vengeful one. “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (John 6: 40). The life and words of Jesus make clear that it is faith and the love that is its outgrowth and not race, ethnicity, culture, class, or modes of religious practice and expression that are the source of eternal life. The gospels make clear to us that it is not the chosen ones who are most open to the incarnation, the manifestation in Jesus of the Divine nature, but rather the hated and mistrusted Samaritans.
Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving maintains that most of what we call love is but égoïsme à deux. By this he means that it is a relationship between two people that is merely constituted by its antagonism toward the rest of humanity. This is not love, as Fromm sees it, but merely a mode of seeking mutual self-gratification and security from the rest of the world. Love in any real sense, however, must of its nature include the love of all in common. Despite both the life experience and teaching of Jesus, we might well imagine that his disciples continue to be surprised and amazed that it is in Samaria that they experience the openness to the message that is not there in Jerusalem. Jesus’ god is not a human creation arising out of the necessary ethical and moral boundaries necessary to preserve a society or culture. Rather, as we see at the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, God is the pervasive and urgent creative force to universal brother and sisterhood.
For Simone Weil, this means that love in the Christian sense is justice and not charity. When Jesus tells us to love the stranger, to love even those who do not do good to us, he is not telling us to have warm feelings toward them. He is telling us to behave in their regard as they justly deserve. He is commanding us never to cease respecting the other, as we respect ourselves and our own. Weil says that we have created the concept of charity so that it is possible for us to claim to be just without giving to the other. We can then seek to be rewarded and pleased with ourselves if we give. It is a way of making ourselves superior to the ones who receive from us.
So we build this even into our concept of god. We create gods who reward us if we do good and punish us if we do evil. God is but a projection of our own superegos. We feel good when we’re charitable and bad when we’re not. For Simone Weil, only justice makes the coexistence of compassion, gratitude, and respect possible, and these are dispositions that apply both to the giver and receiver at the same time. We give and receive out of gratitude and compassion, not entitlement or beneficence. And we give and receive out of respect for ourselves and the other. This is love in the gospel sense.
It’s strange that justice for us seems often to mean giving the other “their just desserts” based on our appraisal of their goodness and virtue or evil and sinfulness. This is why the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son has such a difficulty with what his father does. For the elder son, his father is being unjust because he has always been good and his brother has not. But for the father, justice is compassion, gratitude, and respect. This is why he tells the elder son that all he has is his. The elder son’s problem is not that he is not being given but that his brother also is.
Jesus’ God does not see to fit the pattern of the gods we create in our need to establish viable societies. The God that Jesus reveals is not primarily concerned with ethical probity. We reduce God to this in order to deny the primordial call of God, through Jesus, to justice. We are not called to share out of the goodness and munificence of our hearts, but rather in justice, because of the truth of our living in “a love common to all.”
It seems that if this truth of love as justice truly began to form our hearts that the implications for public policy, as well as personal action, could be transformative. Justice calls for a far more proactive public policy than the promotion of “negative liberty,” that is the understanding that what we owe each other is not to interfere in each other’s freedom. In 2 Corinthians 5:14, St. Paul asserts that “the love of Christ impels us” to live for others. That is, once we recognize in gratitude what we have, this impels us to share it with others. Not because we are especially charitable but because it is a matter of justice. What we have been given, so others should have, in justice. Justice is not a matter of merely leaving others alone, but it is rather one with compassion, gratitude, and respect for their dignity as children of God along with us.
A great justification for our refusal to live justly is, as Simone Weil says, our creation of a notion of charity as a personal virtue. For Jesus, charity is justice. And this justice is to be toward all, not just those we deem worthy to receive it. Research tells us that gods of morality and custom are very effective in diminishing the crudest effects of selfishness and greed in human beings. To reduce the God of Jesus to such a god, however, is to cease to be a Christian. It certainly is helpful to society to constrain the worst impulses of human beings, but it is not transformative. The author of Revelation speaks of a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). This is the transformed world that we believe to be the ultimate outcome of the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This requires that attempt to attune more fully at every moment to the movements of selfishness and greed in ourselves in order to make more room within us to learn how “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice. In the eyes of the Greeks, also, a respect for Zeus the suppliant was the first duty of justice. We have invented the distinction between justice and charity. It is easy to understand why. Our notion of justice dispenses him who possesses from the obligation of giving. If he gives all the same, he thinks he has a right to be pleased with himself. He thinks he has done a good work. As for him who receives, it depends on the way he interprets this notion whether he is exempted from all gratitude of whether it obliges him to offer servile thanks.Simone Weil, from “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” in Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us” pp. 16-17
Only the absolute identification of justice and love makes the coexistence possible of compassion and gratitude on the one hand, and on the other, of respect for the dignity of affliction in the afflicted—a respect felt by the sufferer himself and the others.