Given the events at Westminster yesterday evening, including Labour MP Hilary Benn’s questionable allusions to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37) during his call for British aerial strikes against Syria (see the full speech here), it seemed apt to choose an image of that same parable for today’s advent offering. François-Léon Sicard’s Le Bon Samaritain sculpture (1896) stands in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. It captures a moment from the parable, with the Samaritan picking up the wounded man to put him on his donkey, so that he can take him to an inn and arrange his care.
Sicard portrays both men as being naked, perhaps to accentuate their shared humanity and the absence of ‘otherness’ that stands between these two neighbours; this, after all, is a central theme of this gospel parable. The Samaritan’s taut muscles in his arms and legs testify to the effort he is putting into this task, as he lifts the injured man quite literally off his feet to rest him upon his knee. This is no act of caring from ‘afar’, where our ‘good deeds’ give us a warm fuzzy feeling and we can applaud ourselves for ‘doing the right thing’ without actually getting our hands dirty. As in yesterday’s advent image, skin touches skin here – the Samaritan is prepared to get sweaty, dirty, blood-stained, and tired in order to carry the full weight of the man who needs his help.
In turn, the victim likewise plays a role in Sicard’s retelling of the parable. Weak, hurt, barely conscious, he nevertheless responds to his rescuer’s nursing care with a breath-catching tenderness. Leaning his face against the Samaritan, his left hand reaches across to cup the Samaritan’s head, resting there gently as though to maintain the healing intimacy of the moment. His other arm stays close by his side, leaving his torso and genitals exposed in a gesture that again hints at the utter trust he feels towards the man who is holding him. Unconditional care is reflected back on the carer, begetting a mutual fidelity and a desire to do no harm.
Sicard’s sculpture of Le Bon Samaritain reminds us that this biblical parable speaks of love for one’s neighbour and the need to respond with care, compassion, and healing to those who are hurt and dying. It reminds us that to be a good Samaritan, we have to draw those in need towards us – not keep them at arm’s length – and, in the process, share the weight of their pain and let our skin be stained by their blood and sweat. There is no violent retaliation here, nor even a thought about the victim’s attackers; no one else will get hurt or die – that original act of violence will not be allowed to flourish.
And that takes me back to Hilary Benn’s speech in Parliament on Thursday night. At one point in the speech, he said: “I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians.” Yet history keeps reminding us that aerial bombing does cause civilian casualties – there is less a “potential” for harm here than a shameful inevitability that such harm will happen. In Sicard’s figure of the Samaritan, however, we are offered a glimpse of an alternative response, where this harm is not even considered. Instead, we see two people encountering each other and recognising their shared humanity; we witness a moment where one man’s life hangs in the balance and the other refuses to let it fall.
For an excellent discussion of Hilary Benn’s use of the Good Samaritan parable, read James Crossley’s post ‘Hilary Benn’s Good Samaritan‘ over at his blog Harnessing Chaos.
Today’s wonderful student offering brings us into the realm of UK politics, considering the prophetic (and Christ-like) qualities of that political phenomenon du jour, Jeremy Corbyn. The author of this piece is Harriet Winn, a first year student here at the University of Auckland, who is doing a BA in History and Theological and Religious Studies. Harriet originally hails from West London but now lives in Wellington with her family. While she admits the future is ‘frighteningly ambiguous’, she hopes to pursue a career in journalism or writing of some sort that invoves her working with people to make the world a more egalitarian place.
So, whether or not you are familiar with the intricacies of British politics, read on and enjoy this fabulous discussion of the Christlike Corbyn.
Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ – liberators of the last, the lost, and the least
By Harriet Winn
Jeremy Corbyn is a political anomaly. The hard-left socialist entered the race for leadership of the UK Labour Party somewhat begrudgingly, spurred on by his moral conviction that the government ought to be doing more for those in need (Hattenstone 2015). Whilst he was initially the distinct underdog of the contest, Corbyn emerged as the people’s favourite. He was elected leader of the Labour Party on September 12th, 2015 with an astonishing 59.5% of the vote (Eaton 2015). Despite living centuries apart, Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ have an exceptional amount in common; primarily, both are unlikely pioneers of radical socio-political movements. As established by the Council of Nicea in c.325, Jesus was monumentally more than a prophet – he was fully divine, yet he also displayed many of the traits of an ordinary prophet (Migliore 1991, 62-63, 148). Marcus J. Borg asserts that prophets fundamentally challenge the status-quo, have a passion for social justice, emerge as a prophet from a context of oppression by elites, and possess a vision of hope (Borg 2001, 111-44). Like Christ, Corbyn was the instigator of a grassroots revolution that embodied these traits, a revolution that prioritised compassion and justice, and spoke the language of hope. Corbyn is a 21st century prophet.
Prophets disturb what society deems ‘normal’; they challenge unquestioned assumptions and reject complacency (Borg 2001, 111). Like many prophets before him, Jesus disturbed the normalcy of life. Roman Palestine was a nation created and sustained by imperial violence; ‘it is increasingly clear that Roman military violence created the very conditions of and for Jesus’ mission’ (Horsley 2014, 54). Yet, in a culture permeated by violence, Jesus advocated for peace. As famously quoted in the Beatitudes; ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’ (Matt. 5:39). Jeremy Corbyn is also disruptive presence in the political sphere; he is rejuvenating politics by challenging the status quo and promoting peace. Corbyn takes a similar stance on violence and imperial war to Jesus; he is an ardent believer of pacifism.
Like Jesus, Corbyn does not just implicitly speak of pacifism – he actively engages in the advocacy and practice of it. ‘I have been very involved in the peace movement, the anti-nuclear campaign, the campaign against the Gulf war, the Afghan war…’ (Corbyn 2003, 39). Corbyn has made it exceedingly clear that he would never condone use of Trident: the UK’s nuclear weapon programme (Wintour 2015). His definitive stance on Trident has been interpreted by many of his opponents as threatening, a senior general from the UK military even insinuating that ‘the general staff would never allow a prime minister to jeopardise the security of the country…’ (Eaton 2015). In a world where imperial violence and warfare is widespread and constant, Corbyn gives voice to a resonating and alternative rhetoric. Similarly to how Jesus’ radical values of non-violence unsettled Roman Palestine in the 1st century CE, Corbyn’s refreshing rhetoric moves against the grain of 21st century culture and politics.
Furthermore, prophets have a passion for social justice (Borg 2001, 118-20). Central to Jesus’ ministry was the defence of those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Jesus’ ministry emphasised universality and inclusiveness (Braaten 2008, 167). Women in Roman Palestine were unquestionably inferior in status to men (Swidler 2007, 18). Yet, Jesus pioneered for the rights of women by teaching them the gospel; using examples of women doing good in his parables; choosing a woman to be the first witness of his resurrection; and by condemning misogynistic violence (John. 8:1-11) (Harrison and Richards 1996-7, 183). In the 21st century, the patriarchy continues to dominate and sexism still persists. Jeremy Corbyn pioneers for the rights of women and works earnestly to combat sexism and misogyny; 52% of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet are women (Arnett 2015). By giving more than half of the top jobs in his political party to women, Corbyn showed that he not only believes in the equality of women, but he will actively pursue it. Moreover, Corbyn launched a campaign called ‘Working With Women’ in which he claimed that ‘we will never be a successful society in which all are able to achieve their potential until we have equality for women’ (Corbyn 2015b). Distinctive parallels on the inclusion of women exist between Jesus’ ministry and Corbyn’s political campaign.
Like women, another group of overlooked individuals are children. Children are often ignored or not taken seriously. This was the case in Jesus’ lifetime, yet he spoke widely of the importance of children and the value that they offer to society; ‘Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”’ (Matt. 19:14). Just as the inclusion of children was a significant element of Jesus’ ministry, Corbyn also makes time for children in his political activity; ‘Corbyn proudly shows me one [a card] from the children of Duncombe Primary School in Islington, north London. “Please remember, just as you have always been there for us, we are there for you,” it reads’ (Eaton 2015). The legacy of Jeremy Corbyn will likely be one of prophetic and zealous commitment to striving for social justice for women and children.
In addition to challenging the status quo and being passionate about social justice, a fundamental aspect of prophecy is that it arises from a context of oppression of the vulnerable by the elites (Borg 2001, 127-28). Jesus regularly reinforced the idea that all humans are equal, and also exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders (Matt. 23:1-39) – who were amongst the elites in the social hierarchy of Roman Palestine. In The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus said; ‘“So the last will be first, and the first will be last”’ (Matt. 20:16). Jesus emphasised the irrelevancy of social hierarchies and implied that the poorest, the most vulnerable of society would be valued most by him.
Jeremy Corbyn also dismisses such rigid social hierarchies as harmful and unnecessary; he recognises that the government is firmly rooted in the ideals of neo-liberalism, which values a deregulated economy. Corbyn believes that the government’s preoccupation with austerity is partly due to neo-liberalism. He condemns both neo-liberalism and austerity and cites the latter as an excuse for the rich to oppress the poor (Corbyn 2015a). Contrary to the current Conservative government in the UK – who Corbyn identifies as elitist oppressors, Corbyn avidly believes in the ability of the welfare state to bring about better quality of life for the most vulnerable. Fuelling speculation about the divinity of Corbyn is his employment of biblical imagery when speaking of the welfare state; ‘…we want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system… we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’ (Crossley 2015). Corbyn’s vision is one of egalitarian socialism: where the poor and vulnerable will be treated with the same dignity and respect as the elitist rulers.
Both Jesus and Jeremy Corbyn also perpetuate a narrative of hope – hope is the language of a prosperous future (Borg 2001, 130). Hope is a recurring theme in Jesus’ sermons. Even when not mentioned explicitly, the topics broached by Jesus evoked hope in the oppressed by presenting a radical new way of living and thinking. Jesus’ narrative of hope is found most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:3-5). Jeremy Corbyn’s political mandate is commonly referred to by his supporters as ‘politics of hope’ (Chakrabortty 2015). Thus, to his supporters – many of whom suffer social deprivation, he is an explicit icon of hope: a prophet. Corbyn speaks of themes which are similar to those evident in the Sermon on the Mount; ‘…even his biggest fans admit he can’t open his mouth without expressing the need for peace, justice and solidarity’ (Hattenstone 2015).
Yet, Corbyn does not just talk about hope – he is a living embodiment of the term. Much of English society has grown cynical with politicians, and this can be seen in the waning voter turnout, which has been in steady decline since 1992 (Electoral Commission 2015). The deep-rooted cynicism towards politicians can be attributed to a plethora of reasons, but one of the most compelling is the expenses scandal of 2009, in which many MPs claimed the mortgages of their second houses on parliamentary expenses (Rogers 2009). During this scandal, Corbyn emerged as a man of integrity and a politician who practiced what he preached; ‘…it was reported that he had the lowest claim in the Commons – £8.96 for a printer cartridge’ (Hattenstone 2015). Corbyn does not only instil a sense of hope in his supporters that through him they will receive a better quality of life – he regenerates faith in the political system. Through Corbyn’s commitment to the underprivileged faction of British society, and through his integrity, he has cultivated a narrative of hope.
Jeremy Corbyn and Jesus Christ: unassuming, pacifist warriors of social justice and hope. The similarities between the two men are pervasive and suggest that if Jesus walked earth today, he and Corbyn would have much to talk about. Corbyn is decidedly a contemporary prophet; he embodies the traits identified by Borg. Yet Corbyn surpasses prophetic status to something more potent – he is saviour-like; he resembles Jesus Christ. The similarities are uncanny; ‘Dichotomies don’t come much starker: the new leader of Britain’s left is either delusional or a saviour’ (Chakrabortty 2015). After all, even their initials suggest a divine affiliation…
All references to the Biblical text are from the NIV, unless otherwise stated.
Arnett, George. “Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – older, more rebellious and less male.” The Guardian, September 14, 2015.
Borg, Marcus J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.
Braaten, Carl E. That All May Believe: A Theology of the Gospel and the Mission of the Church. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.
Braaten, Carl E. Who is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011.
Chakrabortty, Aditya. “Jeremy Corbyn’s politics of hope can seize power from the elite.” The Guardian, September 14, 2015.
Corbyn, Jeremy. “Rogue States.” In Anti Imperialism: a guide for the movement, edited by Farah Reza, 33-41. London: Bookmarks, 2003.
Corbyn, Jeremy. “Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Britain can’t cut its way to prosperity. We have to build it.’” The Guardian, September 13, 2015a.
Corbyn, Jeremy. “Working With Women.” Paper presented to the Labour Party, July 28, 2015. Accessed October 8, 2015b.