Author: Sheridan Voysey
A few years ago, researchers did a fascinating experiment. Wanting to know when people would step in to help a stranger, they asked participants to watch a woman named Elaine experience a series of mild electric shocks. The observers were told a little about Elaine beforehand, including her personal values and interests
The experiment began. But in a pre-arranged dramatic twist, Elaine started exaggerating her response to the shocks, prompting an assistant to walk in and suggest one of the observers take her place. Who would do it? It turned out those who shared Elaine’s values and interests were four-times more likely to step in than those who didn’t.
We are more prone to help those who look, think and believe like us. That’s hardly news. But it’s certainly a problem in times of social and political division like these, leaving us equally prone to divinising our tribe, demonising our opponents, and escalating divisions that can lead all the way to violence. Two stories can help us take stock.
Of all the stories Jesus told, the Good Samaritan is probably his most famous, inspiring artists from van Gogh to Billy Bragg and prompting the creation of innumerable hospitals and charities. A man is beaten up and left for dead. A priest walks past and does nothing. So does a lawyer. Then a Samaritan comes by. In that day he’s despised because of his race and beliefs, but he carries the beaten man to hospital and pays for his recovery. The story is shocking because it goes against the tendency revealed in that experiment. A person steps in who is least like the person he helps.
True Good Samaritan acts are equally shocking when they happen today. I think of the moment black protestors in Louisville, Kentucky linked arms to protect a police officer from an angry BLM crowd. I think too of Patrick Hutchinson, a black British protestor who stepped in to carry a white counter-protestor to safety. Given our propensity to only help people like ourselves, I can imagine Jesus pointing to both and saying, “That’s what I mean.”
Such acts go beyond the experiment with Elaine, with not just a stranger helped out but an opponent. The question now is how we can bring the same spirit into our own social and political divisions. Which leads to the second story.