Our Way: Norman Kirk farewells the HMNZS Otago as it sets sail for Mururoa Atoll in June 1973. His invocation of the parable of the Good Samaritan was repeated nearly 43 years later by John Key. But, which of these two political leaders possesses the surer grasp of the parable's meaning?
IN JUNE 1973, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Norman Kirk, bade farewell to the HMNZS Otago as it steamed out of Waitemata Harbour for the tiny Pacific atoll of Mururoa, the island where France’s controversial nuclear weapons programme conducted its atmospheric tests. Minutes before the ship pulled away from the Devonport naval base, the Prime Minister had delivered a short, impromptu speech:
“We could stand back and say ‘We have done enough’. Perhaps some prefer not to get involved. But let the world see. We will not turn our eyes and pass by on the other side of the road. That is not our way.”
Nearly 42 years later, on Waitangi Day 2015, another Prime Minister, John Key, delivered a short, impromptu speech of his own. Responding to challenges from Maori Council Chair, Manu Paul, about why New Zealand was proposing to involve itself in “other people’s wars”, in Syria and Iraq, when there were so many more urgent calls upon its resources at home, Key replied:
“New Zealand is not going to turn the other way. We’re actually going to stand up for human rights, and we’re not going to do silly things, but we may join 60 or so other countries around the world trying to protect people who can’t protect themselves.” “(We have) no intention of going to fight other people’s wars but I’m not going to turn the other way when people are being persecuted and say as a leader it’s other people’s problems. I don’t think that’s the New Zealand way.”
The phraseology of these speeches is remarkably similar. In both cases, the speakers draw upon the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Kirk’s case the invocation is quite deliberate. Compare his “We will not turn our eyes and pass by on the other side of the road”, with the wording of Luke’s Gospel:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.”
In Key’s case, the language is looser, and the reference less precise, but the image conjured up, of someone refusing to ignore the victim of an attack – “I’m not going to turn the other way when people are being persecuted” – is unmistakably that of the Good Samaritan.
Key’s use of the parable is all the more remarkable given his background. Unlike Kirk, who was raised in a devout Salvation Army household, Key was raised by a Jewish mother, who, by all accounts, was not a particularly strict follower of her people’s faith.
It’s an indication of just how deeply embedded this core Christian story has become in our culture. Certainly, it was Kirk’s belief that Christ’s moving response to the question: “Who is my neighbour?” had been thoroughly internalised by his fellow citizens. Hence his confident assertion that, when it came to French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, New Zealanders were simply unwilling to pass by on the other side. Or, as he summed it up: “That is not our way.”
Who Is My Neighbour? The Good Samaritan parable is very deeply embedded in the moral sensibility of Western culture.
When it came to joining the fight against Islamic State, Key’s assumptions about how the average Kiwi was most likely to respond prompted him to voice a conclusion almost identical to Kirk’s: “I don’t think that’s the New Zealand way.”
But which of the two Prime Ministers demonstrates the surer grasp of the parable’s meaning? Is it Kirk or Key who can lay legitimate claim to be acting in the spirit of the Good Samaritan?
The first point to make about the parable is that, although it includes violent acts, none of the violence is perpetrated by the principal players. Yes, the robbers have beaten, stripped and robbed the Samaritan, but the central purpose of the story is to demonstrate the appropriate response.
As Prime Minister, Kirk inherited a situation in which the French were poisoning the South Pacific’s skies with the radioactive by-products of their atomic bombs. The injured parties, in this case, were the innocent peoples of the Pacific. By sending the HMNZS Otago to bear witness to France’s injurious conduct, he hoped to bring it to an end – the diplomatic equivalent of bandaging the victims’ wounds, pouring on oil and wine.
Key faces a rather different problem. In Syria and Iraq, the part of the robbers is clearly played by Islamic State. The victim’s part, equally clearly, belongs to the suffering people of those war-torn nations. What, then, should the Samaritan – i.e. New Zealand – do?
To hear Mr Key tell the story, the Samaritan should return to Jerusalem, get in touch with the Roman Governor, and offer to assist in the training of a special unit to patrol the Jericho Road.
It is possible to argue that, by participating in the training of such a unit, the Samaritan would be helping to prevent any future travellers from being attacked by robbers, and that by so doing he is demonstrating the ethical qualities of a good neighbour.
But what about the victim lying bleeding at the side of the road? In the parable, he is the focus of the Samaritan’s neighbourliness. It is his urgent need that the Samaritan responds to.
Translating this into New Zealand’s options in the Middle East, would it not be more in keeping with spirit of the story for our government to direct its resources towards binding up Syria’s and Iraq’s wounds? To supplying them with medicines, food and shelter?
Christ did not err in choosing a Samaritan as the focus of his story. In the Israel of his day the Samaritans were a despised people. That it should be one of these that showed the victim mercy added a special poignancy to the tale.
If he really wishes to emulate the Good Samaritan, shouldn’t our Prime Minister demonstrate to the people of Syria and Iraq that even the despised unbelievers of the West – the ones who attacked and robbed them, bombed their cities and left their shattered communities for dead – are also capable of mercy and compassion; of bandaging-up the wounds they have inflicted; of pouring on wine and oil?
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Tuesday, 10 February 2015.