How to overcome the Good Samaritan Syndrome

The story of the good Samaritan has always challenged me. In fact, it has become my spirituality touchstone. My bottom line is: Do I regularly help the guy out of the ditch or not?

When the Samaritan businessman traveled down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho and encountered a man set upon by robbers, he did what every one of us wants to do: He helped the victim. He didn't just call 911 or put a couple of bucks in the guy's begging cup. He pulled him out of the ditch, put him in his own car, delivered him to the closest thing to an emergency room they had in those days, paid for his care, and checked on him a few days later on his return trip.

Wouldn't we all like to do what that good Samaritan did whenever we come across someone in dire need? Yes, but we are all but paralyzed by what I call the Good Samaritan Syndrome.

That syndrome is the result of modern communications that bombard our eyes with countless people dying in ditches every day. It's all right in front of us all the time, on TV or the Internet or in almost every book, magazine and news source we read. Tsunamis in the Pacific, Ebola in Africa, ISIS in the Middle East, global warming, human trafficking, dire poverty, intractable homelessness ... I give up.

Those are just the big ones from the news. Then there is all the personal tragedy we encounter. A father dies too young because he didn't receive good health care, a child is born with a birth defect, a woman stands by the side of the road with jumper cables in her hands. Your kids need help, your elderly parents need help, your neighbor needs help, strangers need help.

I swear sometimes that if the good Samaritan were around today, he would figure out a bypass to Jericho.

Is there any way to overcome the Good Samaritan Syndrome and be effective? Jesus' good Samaritan couldn't have helped everyone in the world either. He wouldn't even been aware of all the people that needed his help, and even if he did, he wouldn't have had the means.

We do know and we do have means, but the syndrome tempts us to tune out entirely because we can't follow our instinct to help everybody. Our challenge is to make hard judgments about where we can help most meaningfully.

For me, the best remedy for the Good Samaritan Syndrome is in community organization. Since I left college, I have been involved in congregationally-based organizing through the Industrial Areas Foundation, the largest network of local faith and community organizations in the U.S. First I was an organizer myself, and then a volunteer leader. It is the only way I have discovered to help people without burning myself out.

Let me give you just one example: gun violence.

Like you, I watch in horror the latest mass shootings and the almost nightly killings, and I want to do something, anything, to help. That is a good instinct, one I don't want to lose. Leviticus says that I am not to stand idly by while the blood of my neighbor is being shed. But what on earth am I to do?

Because my church is a member of United Power for Action and Justice in Chicago and because United Power is an affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation, I can do something. I can't do everything, but I can do something.

What I was able to do is help organize a national campaign we call "Do Not Stand Idly By" to pressure gun manufacturers to become part of the solution to gun violence, rather than remain part of the problem. We are organizing congregations of all faiths and denominations to join us in this effort. Is it the only way? No. Will it work? I don't know. Might it work? Yes. Do I need to be involved in it? Absolutely.

Good Samaritans suffering from the syndrome of "too many people and causes to help" can find this avenue effective on all kinds of concerns. It has these advantages:

  • It is a collective effort rather than an individual effort. The good Samaritan has to organize a League of Good Samaritans if he (or she) is going to clean up that dangerous road to Jericho.
  • It gets at the root causes of problems rather than merely dealing with the effects. The road to Jericho needs better police protection, not only generous Samaritans.
  • It can take a wider view and stick with an issue longer than any individual Samaritan can do.

So, I belong to a church and my church belongs to a community organization so that I can be an effective good Samaritan in the 21st century. That is where the rubber meets the road, where I choose to befriend my Good Samaritan Syndrome.

[Greg Pierce is the publisher of ACTA Publications in Chicago and the author of The World as It Should Be: Living Authentically in the Here-and-Now Kingdom of God.]

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