Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why Did The Samaritan Cross the Road? (Part 1)

We interrupt our series on cognitive biases to bring you the following special story.

[Photo: The Samaritan Chorus]

This Thursday, 19 November, is Real Samaritans for Peace Day. I’ll be in East Lansing, Michigan, helping to award the Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Service at a ceremony in the chancellor’s house at Michigan State University, home to the finest collection of Samaritan artifacts in the United States.

My good friend and colleague Benyamim Tsedaka, unofficial ambassador of the Samaritan community and chairman of the Samaritan Medal Foundation, will award the actual medal.

Most people are quite surprised to find out that the Samaritans are not only real, but also still with us. But they are. There are today about 750 real Samaritans, descendents of the ones who appear in the New Testament. Roughly half of them live in Holon, Israel, an industrial suburb of Tel Aviv. The other half live in the town of Kiryat Luza, in the Palestinian Territories, a small community on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, the sacred central place of the Samaritan religion.

The Samaritans face real challenges. A tiny people in a hostile region, the Samaritans are desperately involved in the search for peace, and are seen as one of the few groups who get along equally well with both sides in the conflict. As a result, they are much more involved and important in the peace process than their small numbers would imply.

The Origin of the Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Service

In 2004, I met my first Samaritan: Benyamim —Benny — Tsedaka. Benny, head of the AB Institute of Samaritan Studies in Holon, is sort of an unofficial Samaritan ambassador to the world, tirelessly striving to get world attention and support for his community. It’s a tall order. I got interested.

My friend Ralph Benko, a Washingtonian who serves as the Samaritan honorary envoy to the United States, suggested the Samaritans create and award a medal. After all, everyone else offers Samaritan awards—why not the real Samaritans? I thought it was a brilliant idea.
We started the Samaritan Medal Foundation the following year, when Benny next came through town. It was a shoestring operation, basically involving whatever free time Ralph and I could spare. Artist Steve Stiles created the medal design, and we had a hundred medals struck in silver.

We established an interfaith board chaired by Benny, a Samaritan; with Ralph, who is Jewish; my friend Humayun Mirza, who is Muslim; Mark Davis, who is Christian, and me, the not-so-good Samaritan, as executive director. In 2006, we began to honor our Good Samaritans with the Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Service.

Lord Eric Avebury, who is deeply involved in human rights issues, had taken an interest in the Samaritans. We recognized his achievements in world peace. Rev. Jim Singer, whose church was right in the middle of the 14th Street riot corridor in 1968, kept his church opened and fed and sheltered thousands. Paul Pinkerton has devoted his life to caring for Vietnamese orphans through his Paul’s Kids charity.

We weren’t looking to run Alfred Nobel out of business; we just figured Good Samaritans could always use recognition, and the rest of us need reminders that Good Samaritans are all around us.

Then, out of the blue, Benny emailed us that Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, had agreed to accept the Samaritan Medal. We were invited to Israel for the ceremony. And that’s why, in February of 2008, I visited the Samaritan communities in Israel and on the Mountain of Blessings.

The Road to Jericho

Of course, a person can’t get involved with the Samaritans without developing a more than casual curiosity about these people. I’ve found out about their fascinating beliefs, about their amazing history, and about the turbulent world they’ve managed to survive for some 2,700 years. So, if Mr. Peabody will be kind enough to fire up the Way-Bac Machine, we’ll get our trip underway. Our first stop is Alexandria, Egypt; the date is December 26, 1855.

We’re on the deck of the USS Constellation, the tall ship now on display at Harborplace in Baltimore. In 1855, it’s stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. Its mission in these pre-Civil War years is to fight the African slave trade.

The following story comes from letters written home by Marine Corps Sergeant William Philip Schwartz—who just happens to be my wife’s great-great-grandfather. The letters were discovered in a trunk in her uncle’s attic a decade or so ago, and are now part of the USS Constellation Museum collection.

In December of 1855, Schwartz and ten of his men take extended shore leave to see the Holy Land. They book passage on a Turkish steamer to Jaffa, where they hire guides and horses to travel to Jerusalem, a dangerous ride through bandit country. The American consul at Jaffa warns Schwartz that the guides are probably in league with the bandits.

Wrote Schwartz: “The road for about twelve miles from Jaffa lays between immense orchards of pomegranates, oranges, and lemons, which are defended by herds of prickly pear bushes, some 13 or 15 feet in height.”

“After proceeding a few miles on our journey, we came to a halt and mustered our guides near us. We then [produced our revolvers and cutlasses, which had been generously furnished us by the captain of our ship, and] told [the guides] that we had them completely in our power, that we did not wish to injure any of them, but if we were attacked by any armed forces, they (the guides) would be the first we would kill, then fight our way through, if we could.

“This had the desired effect, for we had not proceeded over sixteen miles when we discovered a party of about twenty men making toward us in a very suspicious manner. We immediately placed our guides in a position to receive our first volley. They, perceiving our movement, at once concluded our motives and turned toward our foes, made hasty signs and dispersed the crowd, who took flight in an opposite direction.”

Later in the trip, as the party climbs from the plains of Sharon into the mountains, Schwartz continues, “This road from the plains to Jerusalem is the worst I think I ever saw. It lays for most of the distance about midway between the summit and foot of the hills, now ascending to the very top, then descending, as it were, into the very bowels of the earth, over rocks upon rocks, and through deep ravines and through gulleys. The hills in most places are perfectly barren, then again in a few scattered places may be seen a few olive trees and brushwood.”

The road from Jerusalem to Jericho is to the northeast of the road William Schwartz traveled in 1855. Today, it’s a straight shot down Israeli Highway 1, but for millennia it more closely resembled the terrain Schwartz described: desolate and dangerous.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

A certain traveler who hadn’t thought to bring a revolver and a cutlass, like Schwartz and his men, once fell victim to those bandits. Here’s the story, from the 10th chapter of Luke.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself."

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply, Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.'

"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"

The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."

We'll return to the Parable in part 3 of this series. For now, let's put it in historical context.

Samaritans in the New Testament

Everybody knows the story of the Good Samaritan. In fact, it’s the only thing everybody knows about Samaritans—although, as you can see, it never really happened. It’s a story Jesus tells to win an exchange with an expert in religious law.

Yet, the Parable has so entered the consciousness of Western civilization that Roget’s Thesaurus and every dictionary I checked define “Samaritan” as a synonym of “good.”

There are Samaritan charitable and service organizations by the hundred, the “Samaritan” armored ambulance, the USS Samaritan hospital ship, Samaritan skin cream (made in Australia), the “Good Sam” RV owners’ club, and even a superhero Samaritan in a comic-book series known as “Astro City.” (The superhero Samaritan, in a way, is the most appropriate of the bunch. Like his namesake in the parable, this Samaritan is made up.)

The made-up Good Samaritan is much better known than the real Samaritans who appear in the New Testament. A woman from Samaria gives Jesus water from a well when he asks for it in John 4, a surprise, because “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” When Jesus cures ten lepers in Luke 17, they all run away in joy. Only one, who happens to be a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus for his cure.

Jesus seems initially fond of Samaritans, but has an apparent change of heart after the Samaritan village refuses him because he’s heading for Jerusalem in Luke 9. When he gives the twelve disciples their marching orders in Matthew 10, he says, “Don’t turn on the road that leads to the Gentiles, and don’t enter Samaritan towns.” In today’s phraseology, we’re experiencing a little cultural stereotyping here. It’s clear Jews think ill of Samaritans. It’s equally clear Samaritans return the favor.

On the other hand, Philip in Acts 8 preaches in Samaria, and evidently wins a lot of converts. Some scholars also look at Acts 7 as evidence of Christian interest in the Samaritans. But with the end of Acts, the Bible draws a veil over the Samaritan story.

Continued on Real Samaritans for Peace Day…


  1. Good stuff, Michael. I would have not put Peres at the top of the recipients' list, but the idea for the medal, and the history behind it is brilliant!

    I must offer a suggestion to your history: A broader view of the Gospels' story will show that Jesus put a priority on reaching the Jews because of that particular juncture in history. No change of mind or cultural profiling involved. Otherwise I think He would have blown the Pharisees off, rather than all the "don't you see?" and "why are you teaching this?" Remember the whole town of Sychar welcomed Him, while early on the Capernaites tried to kill Him.

    But back on the subject, that whole thing with the Samaritan Peace Initiative is outstanding, I'm glad you got to do this, and look forward to hearing more about it as the events unfold!

  2. Thanks, Robert. I think you're probably right that Jesus put a priority on reaching Jews, but also made an unsuccessful attempt to reach the Samaritans. More Thursday!