Tolerance for divided nations: Lessons from the Jews and the Samaritans

*In light of recent events in Washington, DC, and the references to Christianity in some of the reports, I am re-posting the second half of my Dec. 7, 2020 piece on intolerance. I recommend also reading the first for a fuller understanding of my take on the meaning of (in)tolerance, its dangers and the human rights issues at stake.

The story of the enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans began around 721 BC when ancient Israel’s northern kingdom was captured by the Assyrians. The resulting intermarriages between the Jews and the Assyrian Gentiles produced ethnically-mixed descendants who were thoroughly despised by the Jews of the southern kingdom.

By the time Jesus came onto the scene many centuries later, the Samaritan community had evolved. It had developed its own distinct ethno-religious identity and practices of worship, many of which were shaped by and in response to their rejection by the Jews. The hostility between the two communities had calcified, with prejudices running deep on both sides, but geographical realities made it impossible for them to completely avoid each other.

The New Testament records three stories in which Jesus, who was Jewish, both defined and modeled tolerance for his followers in his interactions with the Samaritans.

Christ’s model of tolerance

First, in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he encountered at a well (Jn. 4:4-42), Jesus showed how tolerance is not indifferent; it respects, listens to and hears the other. For her part, the woman was clearly bothered by Jesus’s Jewishness and unable to see him apart from it. When she began to relay the religious differences between their communities, he listened. Although he disagreed with her views and firmly presented his own, he was neither contemptuous nor dismissive towards hers. As they sparred over rightful places of worship, he never ceased to see and treat her first as a person. In fact, he cared enough to tell her difficult truths about her life. By the end of their conversation, he had won her over not only through the substance of his words, but also through respect and gentle persuasion.

Second, in his story about the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:30-37), Jesus taught how tolerance is marked by love and kindness, and how it never ceases to see the good in the other. His Jewish audience was surprised that he would commend a Samaritan’s goodness above that of a priest or Levite, but such is the nature of intolerance: it stops us from seeing the good in those with whom we disagree and is content with a caricature that allows us to hold onto our prejudices. Those prejudices then prevent us from treating them with kindness. Jesus shattered the idea that kindness was to be shown only to those with whom we agree.

Third, when his request for hospitality was rejected by the Samaritans, Jesus showed how tolerance does not harm those who oppose or reject us (Lk. 9:51-56). His angry disciples, on the other hand, wanted to destroy the offending village with fire. Recognizing that their intense reaction was likely inspired by wounded pride and their own national prejudices, Jesus swiftly rebuked them before they headed off to another village. In that response, he taught that zeal for one’s beliefs or good causes never justifies the destruction of those who do not share it. If one’s offer of friendship is rejected, the proper response is to move on without anger and remain open to making or receiving another some other time.

In the preamble to the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of Intolerance, the U.N. General Assembly wrote of how “[the] disregard and infringement of … the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or whatever belief, have brought, directly or indirectly, wars and great suffering to mankind.” The story of the Jews and the Samaritans is a warning to nations that the divisions intolerance births do not just disappear—they only grow and under the right conditions explode.

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