The Antifa Activist as the Good Samaritan? By Brandy Daniels


October 29, 2020

Echoing and building on his prior calls for “the growth of a culture of encounter,” in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis turns to the image of a polyhedron, a geometric shape or figure that is marked by multiple polygonal planes which can vary in shape and size. The polyhedron, Francis explains, “can represent a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching, and reciprocally illuminating one another” (215, see also 145). As a theologian whose research is guided by the overarching question of how can we imagine and practice community in a way that takes difference seriously, that affirms difference?, I was encouraged, enlivened, even, at times, exhilarated, by the ways in which the themes of openness to otherness, belonging amidst difference, and process and dialogue permeate Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical “on fraternity and social friendship.”

Unlike with Laudato Si, the existence of which I admittedly barely registered when it came out five years ago, rabid Protestant that I am, I was aware that Fratelli Tutti was coming and found myself pulling up the Vatican website on my phone first thing on the morning of Sunday, October 4th. While I’m indeed still a self-avowed and practicing Protestant, I now teach at a Catholic university, so I have much more of an awareness of the potential impact of a papal encyclical. (Teaching feminist and queer theologies in this setting, for instance, I’ve learned a lot more about the impact of Humanae Vitae.) I also have students who are Catholic, as well as students who grew up Catholic and are hyper-critical of Catholicism, and thus I find it helpful to know what’s going on in, as I say in class, CatholicLand. 

A number of theologians, ethicists, and religious leaders have already addressed many of the themes that stand out to me, and have done so better than I would (or will). Editorials, interviews, roundtables, and podcasts in and by America and National Catholic Reporter (amongst others) have reflected on Francis’ emphasis on difference and the common good, and have emphasized and expounded on its political relevance in today’s world—considering the meaning and implications of some of Francis’ theological exhortations, as well as contending with and building on some of his more concrete recommendations regarding wealth and private property, immigration, the death penalty, interreligious relations, and, to a less satisfactory degree for some (myself included), racial and gender injustice, violence, and inequality.

Grounding Francis’ reflections on difference, belonging, and the common good is the story of the Good Samaritan. In an interview with America, Cardinal Michael Czerny notes that while the Good Samaritan is typically read as a parable of charity, Pope Francis re-presents it as a parable of perception. “99 out of a 100 homilies or other presentations that we’ve had of the parable make it feel like the decision is a decision to help, but the more radical decision is the decision to see.” Throughout Fratelli Tutti, Francis calls us to see, and to respond, to those who are suffering, who have been wounded by society. “The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social, and religious project. Each day we have to decide whether to be Good Samaritans or indifferent bystanders” (69). While I was inspired to read Fratelli Tutti due to my residence (as a Protestant stranger) in academic CatholicLand, what stood out to me more, especially when reading about the Good Samaritan, was my new residence in Portlandia.

I moved to Portland to start my position at the aforementioned Catholic university this past summer. When I arrived in town, it was at around day 11 of daily protesting against racial injustice in Portland. On around day 37 of the protests (July 4th…Apt? Ironic? Both?), federal law enforcement officers were sent into my new city by Donald Trump to “help control protests.” They stood in formation clad in camouflage and tactical gear around the Justice Center, the federal courthouse in Portland, and advanced nightly on overwhelmingly non-violent peaceful protestors, unleashing storms of CS gas, firing flash grenades and pepper pellets (basically, small welt-inducing pellets filled with a mace-like substance) onto the protestors. I write this on October 25th, day 150 of the protests.

My numbers may be slightly off, as there may have been a few nights during the wildfires, when the air quality was extremely hazardous, that protests did not happen, but most evenings in Portland a sizeable number of local residents gather to continue to protest racial injustice and police violence and brutality. Protestors gather rain or shine, amidst Proud Boy harassment and ongoing police violence, and those who gather are students, construction workers, nurses, social workers, professors, bartenders, lawyers, retired grandmothers, and so on. Many, though by no means all, who protest identify either implicitly or explicitly as antifa—as, to be redundant, against fascism.

I try to attend protests in Portland at least once a week, and during the summer, before the semester got hectic, I tried to participate even more. While many protestors just participate as, well, protestors, many are part of different groups providing different services. There are trained medics who provide immediate care for those who have been tear-gassed or hit with pepper pellets or shoved to the ground. There are the legal observers, lawyers and law students with the National Lawyer’s Guild or with the ACLU, offering legal support to those who have been arrested and/or experienced police brutality. There are those with Snack Bloc, providing snacks and beverages for protestors every night. There are the journalists. And there are the clergy witnesses. I go down as a clergy witness, as part of a group called PICR—Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. We are a group of rabbis, ministers, priestesses, and other religious leaders. We wear bright purple vests to identify ourselves, and we aim to bear moral witness in the streets—holding sacred space, centering BIPOC voices, and journeying alongside justice seekers.

At numerous points while reading Fratelli Tutti I couldn’t help but think of the protestors I’ve gotten to know and to stand beside over the past few months. When Francis writes of the value of solidarity, which “finds concrete expression in service, which can take a variety of forms in an effort to care for others,” (115) and “means thinking and acting in terms of community” (116), I immediately thought of the Snack Bloc, the National Lawyers Guild, the therapists who show up to community events and offer sliding scale and free services for people in the community. I think of the folks who do jail support, providing food and warm beverages and welcome to protestors after they are released from jail. I think of the way tens, probably hundreds, of folks sprang into action when alerted that someone in the community had a mental health scare.

Reading Pope Francis’s reflections on the Good Samaritan, in particular, one of the things that struck me was the degree to which Francis urges his readers to identify with the Good Samaritan. Francis unequivocally and repeatedly acknowledges that we, the readers, resemble and are tempted by the roles of the robbers and the religious passerby. “In the face of so much pain and suffering,” then, Francis writes, “our only course is to imitate the Good Samaritan” (65). It is only later, in the section on neighbors without borders, and only briefly, that Francis turns to the particular identity of the Samaritan. To turn to Francis’ words directly, he writes:

82. The parable, though, is troubling, for Jesus says that the wounded man was a Judean, while the one who stopped and helped him was a Samaritan. This detail is quite significant for our reflection on a love that includes everyone. The Samaritans lived in a region where pagan rites were practised. For the Jews, this made them impure, detestable, dangerous. In fact, one ancient Jewish text referring to nations that were hated, speaks of Samaria as “not even a people” (Sir 50:25); it also refers to “the foolish people that live in Shechem” (50:26).

83. This explains why a Samaritan woman, when asked by Jesus for a drink, answered curtly: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jn 4:9). The most offensive charge that those who sought to discredit Jesus could bring was that he was “possessed” and “a Samaritan” (Jn 8:48). So this encounter of mercy between a Samaritan and a Jew is highly provocative; it leaves no room for ideological manipulation and challenges us to expand our frontiers. It gives a universal dimension to our call to love, one that transcends all prejudices, all historical and cultural barriers, all petty interests.

Francis presents the Samaritan as an example of how our love might transcend and break down barriers. But what seems to be missing in this take on the Good Samaritan is the ways in which the Good Samaritan confronts us with the question not only of who we are and can be, but of who the other is, and what we might learn from them.

A little earlier in the encyclical, Francis writes that the “distinctions between Judean and Samaritan, priest and merchant, fade into insignificance. Now there are only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels, and masks fall away…” (70). On one level, this statement makes a great deal of sense to me, and feels deeply real and deeply significant. Yet, on another level, isn’t it precisely those differences, those particularities, those distinctions, that makes those moments of care so striking at times? More significantly, isn’t the Samaritan-ness of the Good Samaritan one of the things that makes the parable so compelling—so jarring, even?

There are some folks in my life, in my family and in some of my extended social circles, who I speak with who are critical of antifa and of the ongoing protests that have been happening in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, of Breonna Taylor, of the shooting of Jacob Black that resulted in constant pain and paralysis from the waist down, of the 59+ other black men and women who have been killed by police in the months following George Floyd’s death after Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, cutting off his ability to breathe, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Their perceptions of the protests, perceptions fueled by Fox News and by a certain figure within our federal government, are of a group of violent angry young people who are attacking police officers, looting and destroying businesses across the city, motivated by malice and socialism and anarchy. When I talk to these folks, I tell them that the overwhelming majority of the protestors are non-violent, that over 90% (a truly conservative estimate) of the violence I have seen is violence done by police to protestors, and the level of force involved is profoundly unequal. I explain to them that I’ve seen this with my own eyes.

Well you’re different, they’ll often say. Of course you’re one of the good ones. You’re just not seeing the violence that happens at the hands of antifa, or you’re blinded by your liberal bias. But it’s good that you go down, since you’re not doing violent, terrorist-y things. In their minds, I, the good Christian, the relatively buttoned-up professor, am the one who is acting the part of the Good Samaritan. But that doesn’t seem to me to be the lesson of the Good Samaritan, because I don’t really culturally figure as Samaritan, certainly not in their eyes. The cultural image of the antifa activist, of the black bloc protestor, the image fabricated by our president, of antifa as terrorist, seems much more aligned with the figure of the Samaritan. Of course, I can still aim to cultivate and embody the virtues of the Good Samaritan. But that only seems to be part of the point of the parable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I tell folks skeptical of the protestors what I have witnessed—the way antifascist activists in Portland step in and care for the retired journalist who got shoved violently to the ground by police officers, the way I’ve seen them put their bodies between police or Proud Boys and others who are more vulnerable, the way they cared for me when I had a panic attack after a large group of police in riot gear arrived out of nowhere and with no warning started bum-rushing our small group—these folks will tell me I have it wrong, that I’m not seeing the whole picture, that no, antifa are not, cannot be, good Samaritans. But what the story of the Good Samaritan teaches us, and what Fratelli Tutti highlights—though, as my reflections indicate, perhaps could do so more explicitly and/or trenchantly—is that these skeptics are overlooking our shared humanity.

In the section on the plea of the stranger, Francis laments how long it took for the Church to condemn slavery and various forms of violence, as well as the ways in which some today feel permitted, perhaps even encouraged, by their faith to support “varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different.” But “[f]aith, and the humanism it inspires,” Francis continues, needs to challenge and respond to this. And for this reason, “it is important that catechesis and preaching speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters” (86).

Amen, of course. I wonder, though, if that catechesis might not only speak about what we share despite our differences, but also how we might learn from those differences?

Brandy Daniels is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Portland. Prior to UP, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Luce Project on Religion and its Publics at the University of Virginia.