Cambridge, MA. You have probably read the sad story of the little girl in Foshan, China, who on October 13 wandered into traffic and was hit by a passing van. She lay in the street for seven minutes or so, without any help from those passing by, until a second vehicle hit her. She died today, October 21, Michael Wines reports in the New York Times. An earlier thoughtful essay by Wines on October 18 recounts the story, and also surveys the complicated response from across China. Though nothing can be proven from a single incident, nevertheless millions commented online on the topic, and the vast majority were horrified, outraged, depressed at the state of China today. Some blamed a system in which it is safer to play it safe and not risk oneself for the stranger. Wines points out how some might have been afraid to help the girl, for the simple reason that they might be blamed for her injuries – as happened in a 2006 case, where a good Samaritan was found guilty of injuring the person she helped; for why would you get involved, if you had not harmed the person in the first place?
This sad story comes to mind as I think ahead to this Sunday’s readings. In Matthew 22, Jesus identifies the two great commandments: ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” More expansively, the first reading from Exodus 22 commands case for the alien, the stranger: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans… And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
How do such readings help? Wines mentions the long tradition of responsibility for the neighbor, and how the value of empathy came to take root in the West. He mentions too how recently a Western woman in China jumped into a river to save a stranger who was drowning. Was she motivated by Christian love? Did she see a bit of herself in the stranger in the river? Was she obeying the commands in Exodus and Matthew?
And what is it in the readings that might motivate us? Hopefully, the threat is not the main thing: “My wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” Rather, it is a powerful theological insight and a true one to claim that if we love God fully, with our whole self, the pathway is opened to love our neighbor as our own self. Perhaps the most poignant reason is the one we find first in Exodus: “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” — you, Moses says, were vulnerable and away from home, so how can you close your heart to those in need, how can you turn away? Wines notes that it was finally a rag collector - and a grandmother, it turns out - who stepped out into the street to pick up the little girl and take her away from further harm; perhaps that lady, herself poor, knew abandonment, and knew what it would be like to be dying in the street with no one caring at all.
Other questions remain on the horizon. Does the incident itself say something about the lack of compassion among the Chinese? We should be very very hesitant today to make sweeping claims about “the West” and “the East” or even “the Chinese.” Yet, according to Wines, many Chinese themselves see this sad incident as a rebuke to the amoral/immoral nature of today’s Chinese society. Some probe deeper, and argue that even older Chinese values stress care for one’s family, but not really for the wider public, strangers.
Would the Chinese be kinder and more compassionate if they were Christian? Surely this one incident does not prove this, but it seems clear that everyone, everywhere, would do well to take to heart the commands of Moses and Jesus: care for the alien; love your neighbor. Yet even if it is indisputable that listening to Jesus will make anyone a better and more compassionate person, it might or might not follow that “being a Christian” will make us better and more compassionate.
What do you think? Why should I help you?