Am I my brother’s keeper?

samaritaAre you familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan? The passage from the tenth chapter of Luke begins with a lawyer testing Jesus by asking him what he may do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the Law says. The lawyer says, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus says that he is correct. The lawyer, wanting to justify himself, then asks, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells this parable:

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’

Now, consider the opening to this provocative and interesting story in the Washington Post yesterday:

A woman sits alone on a gray chair in a psychiatric ward in a Brooklyn hospital. When we first see her, we do not know how long she has been sitting there. Suddenly, the woman collapses on her face onto the dirty floor.

We watch through a surveillance camera as she lies there, her blue gown above her knees, her legs convulsing. We watch as a guard comes into the room, puts his hand on his hip, looks at the woman, then looks up at the television hanging from the ceiling. Then the guard walks away.

We watch as two other patients sit across the room as the woman lies there. We watch them watch her.

The video, released recently on the Internet, documents the minutes the woman twists on the floor. She stops moving at 6:07 a.m. At 6:35 a.m. a hospital staff member comes in, nudges the patient with her foot. We hope the staffer will do something. But she walks away.

In the time that passes between action and indifference, between life and death, we wait before someone finally rolls in a blue gurney and oxygen tank, puts the woman on the gurney and rolls her away. Later we learn that Esmin Elizabeth Green, 49, an immigrant from Jamaica who moved to New York to make money to send to her children back home, is dead.

The camera goes black, leaving its viewers with the question: What might you have done?

The author, DeNeen Brown, gives another example and then this:

Now, you look on with all the brilliance of hindsight and say you would have done it differently. You would have called for help the moment the woman collapsed on the hospital floor. You would have pulled the man out of the street after the car hit him and other cars just passed him by.

Or would you?

Are you really as good as you think you are? Deep down inside, is there a hero waiting there or an apathetic little soul soaked in indifference?

The Washington Post story immediately gripped me. It reminded me of how my pastor begins his sermons. Like most good Lutheran preachers, he’s fond of pointing out our utter sinfulness before he gives us a full dose of the Gospel.

So I was earnestly surprised while reading the remainder of the piece. Other than that fleeting use of the word “soul,” there’s no discussion of the condition of man in a religious sense. Instead, Brown gets quotes from sociologists and psychologists. She introduces a phenomenon called “bystander phenomenon.”
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Which is all fine and good. But hard as this may be for some in secular media to believe, religious folks have been discussing the sinful condition of man for even longer than sociologists have been trying to understand why people don’t behave virtuously at all times. Religious folks even have interesting things to say. Just the simple fact that this parable of Jesus wasn’t invoked in Brown’s story strikes me as weird.

I recently came across an interview of Margaret Sanger conducted by Mike Wallace. A transcript and link to the interview are over at Dawn Eden’s blog. It’s fascinating on all sorts of levels — if eugenics, birth control, 60s-era news media, etc. interest you. But what really got me were the questions Wallace asked.

WALLACE: Do you believe in sin — When I say believe I don’t mean believe in committing sin do you believe there is such a thing as a sin?

He asks her multiple such questions. He inquires about her religious views, her views of the Divine, her views on whether infidelity or murder is sinful, and so on. Her responses are fascinating.

To compare the Mike Wallace interview with the DeNeen Brown piece (which I enjoyed apart from the criticism herein) is almost to experience culture shock. Somehow we went from a culture where media personalities knew enough about religion to ask interesting and provocative questions of a theological nature to one where we avoid spiritual discussions at all costs.

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  • Jerry

    I’m starting to think that we should categorize media “sins”. Then you could have a post with a “sin ranking”. Let’s say #1 is ignoring religion. A story that ignores religion totally gets a 100% sinful on problem #1. A story that covers religion but only with 50% of the attention it deserves would be ranked 50% sinful on problem #1. And so forth.

    I thought of these really quickly as a starting point. Anyone care to add some more?
    #1 ignoring religious elements in the story
    #2 not allowing people to define their beliefs
    #3 focusing on the sensational rather than the important
    #4 lack of balance and perspective in covering controversy
    #5 obvious errors of fact – failure to fact check.

  • FrGregACCA

    That interesting, Jerry, and I don’t disagree; however, as a former journo, I have to maintain that #5 should be #1.

  • Jerry

    I did not intend a hierarchy of journalistic sins but that is a further refinement that could be done.

  • Dave

    Jerry, items #3 though #5 would flood this board with analysis of stories having nothing to do with religion. They are purely jounalistic sins.

    We already have what I regard as too many posts that are really about liberal bias rather than failure to get religion, or about use of language regarding a religiously tinged subject that rankles one of the GetReligionistas. With your frame we would be swamped.

  • Jonathan

    Sin #5 stays because you’re not getting religion if you don’t get the facts right – period. As for #3 and #4, I think they’re still valid journalistic sins, although you and I may disagree on whether they’ve been committed and how egregious they are. Both Get Religion and The Revealer should identify sins #3 and #4, although what qualifies is obviously going to differ between those two sites. That’s the value of having both sites.

  • Dave

    Jonathan, your redifinition of Sin #5 as religious brings to mind Lincoln’s bon mot about a tail still being a tail even if you call it a leg. An article about commercial aircraft sales that misidentifies the A350 as a product of Boeing rather than Airbus is committing Sin #5 but isn’t failing to Get Religion.

  • tmatt

    For me and this blog, clear errors of fact remain cause No. 1.

    That’s just basic journalism turf that must be defend.

    Sins of omission and then sins of commission, in that order.

  • Dave


    I’m sure you don’t mean you’d post an analysis here of my notional example in which the manufacturer of an aircraft is misidentified.

  • Eli

    This may possibly be one of the most interesting and provocative posts I’ve yet read here at GetReligion. Unfortunately I have to report that I’m having trouble disagreeing with anything that Mollie’s written. I have to also agree with her that the article and Sanger interview are both so fascinating esp. considering how the media, the overall culture and folks’ perspectives have so dramatically shifted in the 50 years since that conversation took place.

    At the same time, the one thing I would add, is that it’s also incredibly interesting to me from the Sanger interview and the article what happens when one both denies the basic reality of the purpose of sex (viz. to make babies) as well as the notion of what makes for good neighborly behavior, respectively. When sex is relegated to merely being “fun”, as is possible with the widespread use of birth control, or is used primarily as a means to exercise power over another person and being neighborly is equated to minding one’s own business the implications become profound.

    And perhaps it’s also true that we’ll continue moving towards a direction in the MSM and in our culture, per the article, where none of us will have any compulsion to address anybody that is suffering (i.e. all of us at some point) unless it’s legislated or through lawsuits due, at least in part, to our great and thoughtful humanitarians like Margaret Sanger. On the other hand, there’s always the possibility that the tide will turn and lessons such as those of the Good Samaritan will again resonate with people in the MSM.

    Here’s for holding out hope.

  • Mollie

    Thank you for your very kind words, Eli.