The Political Samaritan

How Power Hijacked a Parable

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Nick Spencer
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2018.
     208 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472942210.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The use of Christian Scripture in political discussions, for Americans, is hardly a new phenomenon or an uncommon one. But as Nick Spencer explains, the use of scriptural metaphors in public life, for the British, is one which has a less well-known history, particularly in recent years. As religious participation in Britain continues to decline, scriptural metaphors continue to live on in public discourse, put to work in increasingly novel ways. In this new work, Spencer looks at the usages of one of the New Testament’s more well-known parables—the “Good Samaritan”—in an effort to ascertain how it has been used for various political purposes. 

The scope of the study—recent British politics—provides a circumspect lens for his analysis. After a brief foray into 19th century usages of the Good Samaritan—the parable of Jesus from Luke 10:25-37—Spencer turns to the ways in which this parable has been used in public policy debates from the days of Margaret Thatcher to the present. Spencer identifies a spectrum of references to the parable, which has been rhetorically used to justify everything from intervention in banking crises to refugee aid to governmental tax cuts. In each instance, the story of the Samaritan becomes a cipher for how to aid one’s neighbor, with the assumptions of how this is best accomplished smuggled into the interpretative task. After laying out the various recent interpretations, Spencer devotes time to exegeting the parable itself, and then finally compares the various political usages of the parable to what is present in the scriptural text. 

Spencer’s analysis of the usages is charitable, and he finds benefit in each of the divergent readings, though some cohere more directly to the intent of the parable than others. Spencer does not himself tip his hand toward one reading over another, in the end seeing the proliferation of the parable as evidence that—despite the decline of public participation in religion—Christian imagery still has a profitable place in public discourse. 

As a descriptive work, Spencer’s book is illuminating. His juxtaposition of British usages by Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Jeremy Corbyn provides an intriguing display of how scripture takes on a life of its own in public life. But the book is making a theological argument as well: that the plurality of use is due in no small part to the nature of parables. After recounting the plurality of public uses, Spencer shows the multiple layers and dimensions in the parable itself: religious, political, ethnic, and historical. It is for this reason that some readings of the parable, such as Margaret Thatcher’s, find room at the interpretative table: the parable itself has a lot of interpretative room. 

As an interpretative work, the book succeeds less, for—despite the provocative subtitle—Spencer renders little to no condemnation on any of the interpretations. Ultimately, none of the political usages captures the fullness of the parable’s power in Spencer’s evaluation: all of the usages are in service to a limited political platform. For Spencer, this proliferation of the parable is not only part of how political rhetoric functions, but is also a reason for hoping that Britain is not yet post-Christian. For if the Samaritan limps along in the political rhetoric of Parliament, there is reason to suspect that the Christian faith might still have a place to stand in public discourse and policy. Whether or not religious engagement requiressuch halting usage amongst political leaders is a different question for a different book. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos, the public theology thinktank. He writes and speaks on religion, politics and society and is the authorof several books on the subjects, most recently Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible and Darwin and God.

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