Nick Spencer writes …
There’s not much that unites Jeremy Corbyn and Margaret Thatcher. Beyond the fact that neither was expected to lead their party, it is hard to see what the hard left, national-anthem-dodging, vegetarian, teetotaller has in common with the hard right, free-market-fundamentalist, patriotic carnivore.
But there is one more thing. In spite of their religious differences—Corbyn, who says his faith is a “private matter,” has little in common with the loudly Methodist Thatcher—they are both partial to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Indeed, both have referenced it in high-profile political speeches.
“I want us as a movement to be proud [and] strong,” Corbyn told his newly-energised supporters in his leader’s victory speech in 2015. “I want us to stand up and say ‘we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system’.”
“We have four weeks to show what kind of country we are”, he urged his audience 18 months later as he faced a snap general election. “We know that the people of Britain don’t pass by on the other side.”
The allusion is light but it is there; audible for those with ears to hear. Like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both of whom were fond of the parable, Corbyn preferred the periphrastic reference. Picking up one the key, repeated phrases of the story—“he passed by on the other side”—used to describe the heartless Priest and Levite, Corbyn’s Samaritan lurks in the shadows, hovering at the edge of our vision.
The Thatcherite Samaritan was rather more up front. And he delivered a different message. “The point is that even the Good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side,” she told the audience in one of her early major speeches in 1968.
“No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well,” she informed a bemused Brian Walden on London Weekend Television’s Weekend World fifteen years later.
This wasn’t Thatcher’s only use of the story. She deployed it several times, such as in a lecture in 1978, when she used it to wonder out loud in a far from theoretical way “whether the State services would have done as much for the man who fell among thieves as the Good Samaritan did for him?”
It was the material Samaritan that stuck with her, however, so much so that it nearly became an albatross, and she avoided him altogether in her last great theo-political lecture, the so-called Sermon on the Mound, in 1988.
Just as Corbyn isn’t alone on the left in his use of the parable, so numerous Tories have also deployed the tale, as have various Liberal Democrat, Ulster Unionist, and SNP parliamentarians. It doesn’t seem to matter that they have subtly—or sometimes vastly—different interpretations of the parable. They just can’t leave it alone.
Much of this is down to Jesus’ genius as a story teller. The parable is a perfect miniature, simple, well-structured, striking, and provocative. Like so much else he said, it stays lodged in the mind.
But then again, there are many other stories that could match that description, both from classical and modern literature. Why is this story so popular?
The true reason might lie in the parable’s moral authority. Every politician likes to think they are doing more than counting and redistributing beans. They like to imagine that politics is about the big picture—the clash of worldviews and all that. And, in spite of what it might feel like being on the EU Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection Sub-Committee, they are right. Politics is about defining the contours of our common life and it cannot help draw on deep moral visions in doing so.
In spite of what we think of the Bible—indeed, in spite of what politicians think, as the tale is favoured by the godless just as much as the faithful—it taps the deep moral aquifers that supply our common life with ideas of responsibility, equality, freedom, dignity, and the like. And it does so with outstanding rhetorical power. Somehow, a politician claiming that she “will not pass by on the other side of the road” is so much more resonant and powerful than her saying that she feels the need to intervene in a situation.
Politicians keep on going back to it because they want to say something serious. In an age of social-media echo chambers, government by tweet and ever more partisan point scoring, we should welcome the political Samaritan on stage, even if when there he is used to say some strange and perplexing things.
The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable By Nick Spencer is published by Bloomsbury