As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.
Cardinal J. H. Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University, 1852

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Don't write off alternative medicine.

The New Scientist says "Why the medicine your take could actually be bad for your health" (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist 30/11/2019 pp34-39. Online, behind a paywall).

There are multiple problems. Drug approval by the authorities in the US and Europe is being fast-tracked without proper testing and once drugs are on the market they are being prescribed for things that they weren't intended for. The pressure, of course, comes from the pharmaceutical industry ("follow the money").

Doctors prescribe drugs even if they don't know whether they are effective "because they want to do something rather than nothing". That is understandable and it would be hard to criticise doctors for doing it. They are prescribing hope. Surely it is better to than saying 'sorry, there's nothing I can do about it'. And there remains the placebo effect: it might still do some good even if there's no physical mechanism for it to help.

But if you are prescribing hope through the placebo effect, surely you could use something other than an expensive drug that might have harmful side-effects? You can't just prescribe a sweetie and say 'this might help you through the placebo effect': there has to be something that allows both the doctor and the patient to believe that the drug will work. So why not complementary and alternative medicine? Herbs, meditation, and even homeopathy?

Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

The parable of the Good Samaritan must be one of the most familiar of Jesus's parables, and the term 'good Samaritan' or even just 'Samaritan' has entered the language for someone helping a stranger, recognised even by those with no knowledge of the bible. Probing the parable more closely, however, uncovers some rather more challenging insights.

To be a 'good Samaritan' in everyday parlance is to help someone you don't know, simply because they need help. Let's call this the Level 1 interpretation of the parable.

Most sermons on the parable will go further, pointing to the fact that Samaritans were despised 'others' in the eyes of the Jews at the time of the New Testament, and that the message of the parable is to emphasise helping those who are different from us: helping the 'Other'. Witness, for example, the 2020 New Year address by the Archbishop of Canterbury:

When we hear someone described as a Good Samaritan, we think about that person taking the time to help another. But it’s also a story told by Jesus about someone taking the risk of reaching out to another who was very different to them. Yes, the person needed help – but they also needed connection.

This, reaching out to, connecting with and helping, the Other, is the Level 2 interpretation of the parable, but it still misses an important message.

For the Level 3 interpretation we need to notice that it was the Samaritan helping the Jew, not the other way around. The parable was addressed to Jews, so it wasn't saying “you should help the Other”, it was saying “you need the help of the Other”. That was, and is, much more revolutionary.

Helping someone implies a power relationship. The helper has the power: the helped is powerless (that's why they need help). Charity is done by those in control, and to suggest that it was the Samaritan dispensing the charity was to question the status of the Jew, denying the superiority of the Jew over the Samaritan. To appreciate the impact of the parable on the original audience we would need to be able to put ourselves into the minds of 1st Century Jews. Alternatively we can rewrite the parable to set it in the here and now.

In 21st Century Britain Christianity is the dominant (hegemonic) religion so our reformulated parable will be addressed to Christians. It will have a Christian attacked by robbers and it will be a Christian priest and, say, a Church Warden passing by on the other side of the road. The helper, the 'Samaritan', needs more thought. It will be someone we Christians might not respect: someone we think needs our help rather than someone that comes to our aid. Or someone we don't want to be in debt to: someone we want to keep at a distance. Someone we don't want to respect. Who might that be? I suggest that you spend some time thinking about who that might be for you, but candidates might include, for example, Muslims, asylum seekers, rough-sleepers, Irish or Romany Travellers. In my attempt at a rewriting the parable at the end of this article, I have made the rescuer a Muslim because it seems to me that at the moment a lot of people in England would rather not respect Muslims.

The move from the Level 1 to Level 2 interpretation of the parable is challenging, but not threatening. Helping someone very different from us might take courage, as the Archbishop suggests, but in the end it doesn't – by itself – change anything. Even worse, charity can reinforce injustice and inequality. Welby suggests helping at a foodbank. Certainly foodbanks are tragically needed in 2020 and volunteering in any way is to be encouraged. But if we, the secure and comfortable, just stop the Others from starving it allows the status quo to continue. For the ethics of levels 1 and 2 that's fine, so long as we didn't pass by on the other side.

Something completely different emerges from the Level 3 interpretation. It's not denying the insights of Levels 1 and 2 – there's no getting away from the final verse in which Jesus said “Go and do likewise”. But in questioning the established order it is a revolutionary interpretation and threatens the hegemony of, in our case, the Christian church.

It is not surprising that the Archbishop of Canterbury stops at Level 2.

The parable of the Good Muslim, 

The parable of the Good Samaritan for a 21st century Western Christian audience

Just then an Oxford theologian stood up to test Jesus.‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the bible? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Oxford to Canterbury, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Church Warden, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Muslim on his way to the Mosque came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having treated them with an antiseptic and soothing cream . Then he put him in caravan, brought him to a pub, and took care of him. The next day he took out fifty pounds, gave it to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’