The Good Samaritan shows us how to overcome division

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which hinges on Jesus’ question: who was neighbor to the man who was beaten by robbers and left to die? The scholar of the law whom Jesus is talking to responds that it was the Good Samaritan who “treated him with mercy.” This parable provides us with the key for growing in unity and overcoming division, which our society desperately needs today. 

Our civil discourse has become so coarse that we are witnessing verbal and sometimes physical beatings in the public square. When Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein is upbraided on social media for being too kind and civil to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one recognizes how far off course our society has drifted. Gone are the days when disagreements focused on the substance of the issue debated.  

Instead, people on opposite sides of arguments attack the character of those they disagree with and rush to judgement about their motives for not believing as they do. They think people should be dismissed and scorned, and civility and charity are only for those who agree with you. This is the modern equivalent of the Levite and the priest who walk on the other side of the road from the beaten man, closing their hearts to his plight. 

In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on fraternity and social friendship, he explains how in earlier Jewish traditions the “ancient commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ was usually understood as referring to one’s fellow citizens, yet the boundaries gradually expanded … (FT, 59).” In the New Testament, Jesus broadens this commandment to make it “universal in scope, embracing everyone on the basis of our shared humanity, since the heavenly Father ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good (Mt. 5:45).”  

It seems to me that amid the flood of information and misinformation about politics, our country, or even about the Church, we have lost the impulse for charity and recognizing the inherent dignity of every human being. We have gotten swept away in accusations and forgotten that each of us is a brother or sister because we have been created by God in his image and likeness. 

If we love God, then we should be seeking to love him in each other, despite how badly that person behaves or how cruelly they speak to us. St. Mother Teresa often spoke about loving Jesus in the “distressing disguise of the poor” when she talked about caring for the abandoned sick and dying people in the streets of Calcutta. But the “distressing disguise” that we encounter in our streets and in our society today is different. These people may not be dressed in rags, rather, they are starving for love.  

The Holy Father reflects on the Parable of the Good Samaritan this way: “It speaks to us of an essential and often forgotten aspect of our common humanity: we were created for a fulfilment that can only be found in love. We cannot be indifferent to suffering; we cannot allow anyone to go through life as an outcast. Instead, we should feel indignant, challenged to emerge from our comfortable isolation and to be changed by our contact with human suffering (FT, 68).”  

This ability to be moved with compassion, which comes from receiving God’s love for us and then loving others as he loves us, stands at the heart of God’s desire for unity. And therefore, it must be at the center of any effort to promote unity.  

We see this central role of charity in building unity in St. John’s Gospel when Jesus is anticipating his Passion, Death and Resurrection and prays for the unity of all those who have and will believe in him. ‘Righteous Father,’ he says, ‘the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them (Jn. 17:25-26).’ Here we see again that it is the love of God, which gives birth to charity in us, that produces unity. 

May each of us experience the love of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for us. May we live well the virtue of charity and allow ourselves to be moved with compassion for those who disagree with us and are perceived to be our enemies, especially as we approach the upcoming election cycle.  

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”