SUMMER BLOG SERIES #7 : Who is my neighbour?

When confronted with the question, “What does social justice mean to you?” one can do worse than turn to the story of the good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-37. Indeed, this particular passage of the gospel has been well trod. And far be it from me to think that I could contribute anything “new” to this 2000 year long conversation. But that is not really the point of this response anyway. This is a response to a question, a question of meaning; more than that, a question of meaning directed at me, concerning me: I have been asked to account for what social justice means to me. Not an easy question, to be sure, hence my proclivity to turn and run to a place of refuge, a place familiar yet uncanny. It may be cliché to bring up the good Samaritan in relation to social justice, but clichés come to be established for a reason.

As I am sure you know, the parable begins with a pharisee, an “expert in the law,” who confronts and tests Jesus. He first asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies, “Do what is written in the law, have you read it?” To prove that he has not only read, but also understood the law, the expert replies with his own interpretation of it, “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 neighbour as yourself.” Jesus replies, “Correct, so go do this and live.” But then the text says, “But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’”[if !supportFootnotes][1][endif] It is to this question from the expert in the law that Jesus relates the parable of the good Samaritan.

As noted, the movement of the question is away from the self. The addresser initiates the dialogue with a question, not in order to tell the addressee that they are/aren’t a neighbour, but to ask them whether they, the addresser, have been so. When you ask, “Have I been your neighbour?” you open yourself up to criticism. You allow the other to speak to you, into you, to inform the meaning of “neighbour” for you. You allow the other to teach you the meaning of neighbour, it does not come from oneself. “Have I been your neighbour?” is a question that initiates a dialogue by first humbling oneself before the other. It forces introspection through opening up oneself to criticism from the other. It is they that tell you whether you have been their neighbour. I argue that this initial movement, this opening up of oneself to criticism from the other is the beginning of social justice. Subsequently it is also how one opens themselves up to truth. Truth and justice are never far away from each other. Facere Veritatem, to DO the truth, to put justice before truth in order to have truth, to do truth, to move towards truth. One must give of themselves to the other, sacrifice for the other, allow oneself to be wounded by the other while allowing oneself to not wholly understanding the other. You don’t know if they are your neighbour, but that also doesn’t matter (ethically). You don’t know if they are your neighbour, yet you are called to be a neighbour to them.

To drive this point home, I would like to briefly quote philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, a hermeneutics who wrote an essay titled, “Who Am I and Who Are You?” He writes,

The You is the addressee as such. That is the general semantic function, and one must then ask how the movement of meaning in a poetic speech fulfills this function. Is it meaningful to ask who this You is? As in the sense of: is it someone close to me? My neighbour? Or perhaps God, the closest and most distant of all? This cannot be determined. Who the You is cannot be determined because it hasn’t been determined. The address has an aim, but it has no object—other than perhaps whoever faces up to the address by answering. Even the Christian love commandment does not determine the extent to which one’s neighbour is God, or God one’s neighbour.[if !supportFootnotes][2]

The YOU of the question, “What does social justice mean to you?” cannot be determined because it isn’t determined by virtue of being a pronoun. YOU identifies an aim, but not an object. YOU provides direction, not destination. Just like the term “neighbour” as it is understood by Christ in the parable of the good Samaritan. When the pharisee asks who is my neighbour, he is looking for the object, the destination. Jesus replies by giving him an aim, a direction. So, in answer to your question Andrew, what does social justice mean to me? It means facing another and humbly asking, what does social justice mean to you?


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[if !supportFootnotes][1][endif] This is a summary of Luke 10:25-29 NIV

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Who Am I and Who are You?, trans. and ed. Richard Heinemann and Bruce Krajewski (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997), 69.[if !supportFootnotes]


Written by Joshua Smith

/ Joshua lives in Montréal, Québec where he attends Concordia University and is currently in the middle of his Masters degree in Philosophy. His research is currently focusing on Gadamerian hermeneutics and Derridean deconstruction. Art, basketball, hip-hop, and books consume his life.

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