“And who is my neighbour?” asked a Jewish teacher of the Law when Jesus Christ told him that eternal life entails observing two commandments: to love God and to love one’s neighbour.
The answer he received, through the parable of the good Samaritan, continues to provoke contemplation to this day. Can we truly view even an enemy as a fellow human—and love them? If the standard of humanity set forth by Jesus seems too lofty, what alternative approaches do people suggest to assess who their ‘neighbours’ are?
Stages in history
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is the moral injunction, or perhaps just a premonition, that has generally aided humans in surviving rather than thriving. In such circumstances, a neighbour is a member of the family, then of the kin, and subsequently of the tribe, in concentric circles, depending on how much they still have in common with these members. A neighbour is someone as similar to you as possible. However, the inadequacy of this minimal criterion was revealed in Cain’s act of killing his brother Abel, or in the legendary story of Romulus, who killed his twin brother Remus.
A more effective criterion, one that consistently emerges from daily life and practice, is that in order to develop and have a pleasant life, collaboration with others, within a community, is necessary. This criterion is based on the observation that there are shared goals that must be pursued as a group, for the benefit of all and each individually. Thus, a calculation of interests and advantages on both sides prompts people to introduce rules that involve cooperation, mutual trust, and respect for agreements, among other things. In these circumstances, a neighbour is anyone who works together with you on something and benefits from the results. The construction of a building, a well, a bridge, a road, and so on, are occasions for collaboration and closeness among fellow humans.
However, in these cases, one cannot speak of a complete humanization of coexistence if it is based solely on interests and advantages, as it either vanishes alongside them or gives rise to competitions and conflicts. This is precisely what has occurred and continues to occur throughout history, as people predominantly halt at these reasons for temporary collaboration, contingent on interests and benefits.
For instance, this enabled the debate around whether women should be regarded as having souls, as compared to men, in the 6th century AD, during the Council of Macon (France). The factions were closely matched in numbers, and the balance was tipped in favour of the decision that a woman does, indeed, possess a soul, with just three extra votes from certain church figures. From the monks’ perspective, the woman was highly dissimilar to them and undesirable in their midst—a foreigner burdened with the original sin, a temptation on the path to salvation.
In the same spirit of emphasising differences rather than appreciating similarities, almost a millennium later, in 1512, Spanish monks deliberated on whether non-Europeans were human or not and ultimately conceded that they were. The economic interests and colonial aspirations of the Europeans were better served by the perspective that non-Europeans were less than fully human and thus fit for conquest.
Likewise, slavery (both ancient and modern) demonstrates that the aspiration for humanization fades in the face of people’s willingness to exploit the differences among them for the purpose of profiting from and exploiting their fellow beings. The less similar the other is—in terms of social class, wealth, ethnicity, race, gender—the further removed they are from those who believe their kind represents the essence of humanity. Throughout history, the category of ‘neighbour’ for this type of person has increasingly narrowed to become one who shares the same characteristics. The history of humanity unfolds as a story of the creation and modification of hierarchies of power, wealth, nobility, and privileges—a succession of Babel towers, where those at the top are “more human” than those at the bottom.
Stages in cultural anthropology
It’s no wonder that echoes of these perceptions from the Dark Middle Ages have persisted into contemporary times, especially as small societies and communities have remained closed. Xenophobia and ethnocentrism have been traits borne from precisely this isolation of communities from interactions with the rest of the world.
The great geographical discoveries caused a true cultural shock to the Western world, reshaping its view of the world and of humanity. The accounts of navigators, soldiers, adventurers, and merchants describing differently structured lands, new races, unknown customs, and traditions were the ones that fired the imagination of the era and likely gave rise to the emergence of utopias. The creations of Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella, or Francis Bacon expanded the known horizon as well as the conceivable one, projecting ideal models of social-political organisation in unknown and distant places, inspired by the geographical exploration of the Earth. Daily disappointments and the typically European aspirations for the improvement of social, political life, and spirituality of that time found a refuge and a potential location. It is telling that this refuge and location always seemed to involve distant and isolated…islands.
Here is an illustrative excerpt from Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis,” in which European shipwreck survivors are greeted by the mysterious inhabitants of an unknown island in the South Sea as follows: “He said; ‘He was a priest, and looked for a priest’s reward; which was our brotherly love, and the good of our souls and bodies.’ So he went from us, not without tears of tenderness in his eyes; and left us also confused with joy and kindness, saying amongst ourselves; ‘That we were come into a land of angels, which did appear to us daily, and prevent us with comforts, which we thought not of, much less expected’.” This passage epitomises the behaviour of the Good Samaritan in a utopian society, as the author would have wished his society to be had it followed the principles of Christian morality.
There have also been forms of ethnocentrism, even Eurocentrism, stemming not from insularity but from the arrogance of confusing the hierarchy of civilization with the hierarchy of humanization, from believing that prosperity and social progress make us, Europeans, better than other peoples, ethnicities, and races across the globe.
Against the backdrop of this prejudice, and as a reaction to it, cultural anthropology emerged as the science of mankind in the early last century. Its central concept is alterity, encompassing the entire diversity of cultures existing on the planet, other than the researcher’s own cultural background. The founder of cultural anthropology as a subject based on fieldwork is the German-born American, Franz Boas. He adopted and propagated the principle of cultural relativism in research methodology. This required anthropologists to approach the study of a foreign culture by assessing it against its own standards, not those of the researcher’s own culture.
For instance, if it was observed that the Eskimo people had the practice of abandoning their elderly members on an ice floe during harsh winter periods when food was scarce for the entire family, this custom should not have been judged by the moral standards of Europeans. In such a case, the Eskimos might have been perceived as cold-blooded criminals of their own family members. However, in the extremely harsh conditions of life at the North Pole, this dramatic practice, accepted by the elderly individuals in question and passed down from one generation to another, represented the only survival solution for the young and the children.
Put more simply, the principle of cultural relativism demanded that we try, to the best of our ability, to place ourselves in the shoes of those being evaluated, within their psycho-socio-cultural context, and attempt to understand them from within. For this purpose, the rigours of fieldwork required a researcher to spend at least a year within the studied community, learning their language and participating in their life. This willingness hadn’t been demonstrated by previous authors who described distant, exotic communities from the comfort of their offices or libraries, from the perspective of European superiority. An example of such an author is Sir James George Frazer, with his monumental work “The Golden Bough.” Even more diligent researchers, like the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, demonstrated this superiority. Here’s what he noted in 1925: “Looking from far and above, from our high places of safety in developed civilization, it is easy to see all the crudity and irrelevance of magic. But without its power and guidance early man could not have mastered his practical difficulties as he has done, nor could man have advanced to the higher stages of culture.”
Anthropology contained the misguided notion, with no scientific foundation, that the “savage” human is a sort of contemporary ancestor of the civilised white man; that by studying today’s “savages,” we would understand how we ourselves evolved from caves, from barbarism to civilization.
What is certain is that the opening of the civilised world to the inclusion of such distant and vastly different tribes and communities within the sphere of humanity is very recent, spanning less than a century. The decisive contribution of cultural anthropology to this opening cannot be understated. Finally, the term “neighbour” tends to encompass any individual on the planet, and the diversity of cultures becomes a wealth that should be valued and safeguarded.
Anticipating the effects of increasingly close and frequent interactions between the world’s cultures, contemporary philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer warned: “And in encountering the other and what is different, a kind of self-encounter can also take place. But more pressing than ever is the duty to learn to recognize, in the other and in the differing character, what we have in common. In our increasingly crowded world, cultures, religions, customs, and profoundly differing values converge. It would be an illusion to believe that only a rational system of advantages—a sort of world economic religion, so to speak—could regulate human coexistence on this planet that is becoming ever smaller. (…) The science of man, in all its diversity, becomes a moral and philosophical task for us all .”
However, in recent decades, the criteria for evaluating otherness, the other, their culture, and therefore what we consider as our “neighbour,” have changed. A veritable “religion of world economy” seems to distance Westerners from the integrity of researchers.
The accelerated phenomenon of cultural interpenetration through massive migrations of populations toward the West has provoked a defensive reaction from host cultures. It was much easier to advocate multiculturalism when those populations were at a comfortable distance, on different continents, in paradisiacal islands, or in self-governed or colonised lands. The focus was on their exoticism, they were perceived with aesthetic relaxation. Interactions mainly involved visits, travels, university research, vacations, or business ventures of Westerners in those respective communities.
But their current social conditions show dramatic upheavals, some unprecedented: the demographic explosion of certain populations, economic and financial crises, inter-tribal conflicts, revolutions, unemployment, famine, unknown epidemics, and more. The desperate members of these communities have begun seeking brighter horizons in the prosperous West, and the criteria for evaluating their situation have radically shifted in this unwelcoming West. Recent news reports disturbingly announce turbulent events in the migration process of populations from Arab war zones to the West. Are we somehow descending the ladder of humanization, moving from recognizing neighbours in distant tribes to exclusively recognizing neighbours on the same continent?
George Weidenfeld, a 95-year-old wealthy Jew who was saved from death by Christians during World War II, has decided to save Christians from Syria and Iraq in turn. He has so far rescued over 2,000 Christians from ISIS persecution, offering them the opportunity to temporarily emigrate to Poland and funding their stay for at least one year.
Weidenfeld is behaving like a good Samaritan. He told The Times that he cannot save the entire world, but he can do something for Christians, and this is a duty he owes to them. Thus, the act itself becomes a reward across time for the Christian deed of the person who saved Weidenfeld’s life, considering him as his neighbour.
Another good Samaritan is Mustafa, a Muslim who, without funds or other means of assistance, saved 72 Christians from death at the hands of Islamic State militants. He simply talked to the militants, convincing them that he knew those Christians, that they were his neighbours, good people, and deserved to be set free.
The Pehlke spouses are two Germans who also decided to help Iraqi refugees by renting them land from their own property. They say that this initiative has brought them a lot of joy.
Fortunately, such individual efforts are sometimes accompanied by or inspire collective actions: associations, volunteers, official statements, informative websites, and civic journalism advocating for the cause of those in need.
Our neighbour is any person in need to whom we can show compassion and offer help. We are not asked to do what we can’t, only what is within our means, but it is up to our free will to act. Therefore, genuine humanization is not determined by social or historical stages (which are reversible), nor by scientific or economic criteria, but by the decision of each individual conscience to de-center ourselves, to step out of selfishness, and assist our fellow human beings. We will only see them as brothers if we accept that we share the same Father.
Corina Matei is an associate Ph.D professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations, Titu Maiorescu University, Bucharest.