In these extraordinary times, it is hard to know where the world is going. But, as the children’s book title proclaims, Everyone Poops, so the world has to go somewhere. Apparently, this is innate knowledge to judge from the panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper (or “rolls” for the UK audience). But (pun possibly intended) we have not always had such luxury. It is obviously appropriate to review toilet practices of the ancient Roman world, because in the COVID-19 hoarding world we may find it obligatory to conclude “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” (pun perhaps intended). So, here we go (pun probably intended) . . .
Public toilets in the Roman period were remarkably standardized. Ruins in various states of repair generally have the same features. A bench constructed of vertical slabs of stone and capped with horizontal slabs ran along two or three walls of an enclosed (and no doubt odiferous) space. The box thus created allowed visitors to sit in a row over regularly spaced holes with their backs to the wall. Below the box, a channel received the stuff that happened and could be “flushed” out with water supplied from the public aqueduct-fed supply. Many toilets had nice mosaic floors and/or painted walls. It all sounds so . . . civilized.
Observers of these remains might note two features common to such facilities. The first is the curious extension of the seat hole to the front edge of the bench and down the vertical slab of the box. The second is the near-universal channel, apparently for liquid, that runs parallel to the box a short distance in front of it. These two features together answer the observers’ usually unvoiced question, “how did visitors clean themselves after doing their dooty?”
A few textual sources reveal the answer and provide the key to the holes and channels: the Roman version of toilet paper was a sponge on a stick.
Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, observer of life, and hapless advisor to the Emperor Nero (more on that strangely modern problem in this book review), relates a story about a Germanic gladiator slave who committed suicide rather than fight in the arena. Excusing himself to the toilet, the only time he was allowed privacy, the man used “the stick with a sponge, reserved for the vilest of uses,” to choke himself to death (Seneca, Moral Letters 70.20).
Confirmation that a sponge on a stick was the standard bum cleaner in Roman toilets comes from the “Bath of the Seven Sages” in Ostia, the early port for Rome. A room, probably used as a toilet (the seats have not survived) is painted with images of men sitting around the lower portion of the wall, apparently seated on the missing toilet box. Above them on the upper parts of the wall are paintings of the “Seven Sages,” philosophers of the sixth century BC. Each philosopher is labelled with name and city, and their sage advice on defecation: “Solon rubbed his belly to defecate well;” “Thales recommended that those who defecate with difficulty should strain;” and “The cunning Chilon taught how to flatulate unnoticed.” Other statements from the seated patrons below continue the scatological theme. Thales (who supposedly predicted a solar eclipse as related in this blog) is depicted holding a lecturer’s stick and below him is the quote, “No one gives you a long lecture, Priscianus, as long as you use the sponge on a stick” (Latin xylosphongio).
We can now interpret the standard toilet features described above. The vertical part of the toilet hole allows access for the stick and sponge to one’s nether regions while still seated. The xylosphongio could be rinsed in the water channel a convenient arm’s reach in front of the seat. Well-preserved toilet remains show that the channel could have water flowing in and out of the chamber for “sanitation.” It follows that the sponge sticks were provided by the toilet and communally reused . . .
So, if the toilet paper supply fails, we can always “do as the Romans do.” No need for hoarding with communal xylosphongia! But, given the spacing of the holes, “social distancing” may be an issue . . .
Thanks for looking!
 The full text of all preserved inscriptions, with a description of the facility can be seen here.
Today (21 February 2020) marks the 2016th anniversary of the passing of Gaius Caesar. “Who?”—you ask? He was once the presumed heir to the throne of the new Roman Empire; now largely forgotten, much as his monumental cenotaph in Turkey. This brief remembrance of that structure is the latest in an apparently very occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity. But first, the backstory . . .
The first true Roman Emperor, Augustus (formerly Octavian), had a wildly successful reign (31 BC to AD 14) that transformed Rome forever (and for better or worse). But Augustus had no son, and succession was a major issue for him. His only daughter, Julia, produced three sons by Augustus’ right-hand man and son-in-law Marcus Agrippa, and the oldest was Gaius Caesar. Gaius and his three-year younger brother Lucius were adopted by Augustus and named as heirs and raised as such.
At the young age of 18, Gaius was commissioned by Augustus to deal with troubles in Syria with Parthia and Armenia. He was dispatched to the region with some advisors in 1 BC. The boy’s inexperience was questioned by some, but Augustus apparently praised him for not offering prayers (presumably to avoid offending Jewish sensibilities) when he visited Jerusalem (Suetonius, Augustus 93).
Peaceful negotiations with Parthia included a meeting between Gaius and the Parthian king Phraates on the Euphrates. But soon after Parthia incited rebellion against a new ruler of Armenia installed by Gaius. Military action ensued. Gaius, lured into a trap on promise of information, was wounded. The Romans prevailed, but Gaius struggled physically from the injury and in spirit over the next year. By the end of AD 3, he resigned his command and withdrew to Syria, announcing his desire to stay there and retire from public life (princes tiring of royal duty and family intrigue is not a new thing!).
At Augustus behest, he reluctantly agreed to return to Rome and took a trading ship to Lycia where he died suddenly at Limyra on 21 February AD 4 Velleius Paterculus, 2.101-102). His brother Lucius had also died at Massalia en route to military training in Spain the previous year, leaving Augustus and Rome with no heir apparent. Grief-stricken Augustus had a cenotaph erected to honor his grandson Gaius’ short life at the site of his death. Meanwhile, the brothers’ ashes were interred in the mausoleum prepared for Augustus in Rome (read about the Augustus Mausoleum here).
Like Gaius Caesar’s memory in popular Roman history, his cenotaph stands unnoticed in a marshy field at the edge of the ruins of Limyra; a nondescript hulk of ruined masonry. It’s former glory is hinted by the nice pavement surrounding the base. Visitors rarely go there; for the picturesque tombs, theater, and other ruins of Limyra are more attractive. But there is a better story and more mystery with the cenotaph. Even in ancient times, there was rumor of involvement by Livia, mother of the eventual heir Tiberius, in the deaths of Gaius and Lucius (Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.10-11).
What might have been? Augustus’ sorrow over his progeny may have been an omen for Rome’s future.
The first Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, died on this day, 19 August, AD 14. Occasioned by the 2005th anniversary of that event, this post is a brief follow-up to “Monuments to Dead Romans: The Şekerhane Köşkü,” featuring a probable Temple to the Deified Emperor Trajan (d. AD 117). Since that entry (first in a new occasional series) was posted on the most likely day of Trajan’s death, this one too is timed for the anniversary of the Emperor’s death.
Like Trajan after him, Caesar Augustus died on his way back
to Rome. His ashes were placed in the huge tomb Octavian (his given name)
prepared for himself already in 28 BC, before he even obtained the title
Augustus by which he is remembered.
It was a huge circular Mausoleum built of concrete and tufa reticulate (small
blocks of volcanic conglomerate in a diamond pattern, often as a form for the
concrete). The outer of six concentric structural walls measured 300 Roman feet
(c. 89m) in diameter, and the 40 Roman feet (c. 12m) high. The 2nd
and 3rd walls were consequtively higher and bonded with the outer,
making 25m thick ring. A single entrance on the south pierced the outer walls,
opening to a vaulted corridor around the 4th wall, through which 2
entrances led to another corridor around the 5th wall, with a single
entrance to the burial vault (for urns, as the Romans practiced cremation). The
ruined state of the building makes the superstructure details unclear and
several reconstructions have been imagined, most assuming a finished overall height
of 150 Roman feet (40-45m).
According to Strabo, the Mausoleum was the most impressive of local monuments, “which consists of a mound of earth raised upon a high foundation of white marble, situated near the river, and covered to the top with ever-green shrubs. Upon the summit is a bronze statue of Augustus Cæsar, and beneath the mound are the ashes of himself, his relatives, and friends” (Strabo 5.8.3). One would expect such an impressive monument would be remembered, respected, restored, and revered.
Sadly, that has not been the case. The Mausoleum was
converted into a fortress in the medieval period, destroyed in 1167, and robbed
for building stone. The building became an ornate garden in the 16th
century, an arena for bullfights in the 18th, a theater and circus
arena in the 19th, and a concert hall with 3,500 seats in the early
Thereafter the site fell into total neglect, became overgrown, and deteriorated
even after some attempt at clarifying it with a surrounding plaze by the
Fascist government in the late 1930s.
The original white limestone facing was robbed along with
other usable limestone within. Trees dominate the upper surface of the ring
defined by the outer walls today, perhaps simulating hinting at the appearance
described by Strabo (above). The site has been closed for some time, and
restorations were supposed (by one report) to be completed in April of this
year. At last check, the Mausoleum is still inaccessible, but Google Earth photos
give some hope of progress.
My advice: if you get to choose whether to have a month named
for you or have a fantastic monument . . . take the month.
month August was named in his honor—a non-physical and more enduring “monument.”
Bonus for footnote readers—because I never get to share this one in class
anymore: if you ever have to watch Disney’s Cinderella (original animated),
as I have with two daughters and then two granddaughters, you might notice that
when the new fat mouse is discovered, he gives his name as “Octavius.” But
Cinderella says, “we’ll call you ‘Gus’ for short.” How does Octavius become Gus?
Octavius = AuGUStus. This almost makes up for the annoying music.
 Most details from Amanda Claridge, Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (Oxford: University Press, 1998), 181-84. BTW, this series is the most helpful and undersold of archaeological guides; the new edition of Rome is here.
Most of my posts result from a combination of visits I have made to odd places, some latent interest sparked by a random input, and bizarre current events. This is one of those posts. The stimuli, respectively, were a recent visit to the Orkney Islands, my 26 July A.Word.A.Day (AWAD) email featuring ultima Thule, and President Trump’s bid to purchase Greenland.
Despite being a great idea (and not a new one); the latter
is NOT going to happen, notwithstanding any confident flaunting of “the art of
the deal.” Ultima Thule may require a little explanation—at least to get
to the real topic of this post . . .
We begin sometime between 320-300 BC when Pytheas, an explorer from the Greek colony of Massalia (modern Marseilles, France), became the first known Greek to sail past the Carthaginian blockade at the Straits of Gibraltar. His apparent goal was the tin mines of Cornwall, but he also circumnavigated Britain and described its triangular shape accurately. In northern Scotland, Pytheas heard from the locals of a mysterious island called Thule (Θούλη). He reported of Thule that: it was “the most northerly of the Britannic Islands”; “there the circle of the summer tropic is the same as the arctic circle” (Strabo 2.5.8); it lay six days sailing north of Britain (Pliny Natural History 2.186-87); and “there is neither sea nor air, but mixture like sea-lung, in which earth and air are suspended; the sea-lung binds everything together” (Polybius 34.5.3-5). Sea-lung? This got weird. Although the words used are the same as those for jellyfish, Pytheas is using a strange metaphor at minimum. For this and other reasons, many ancient geographers dismissed Pytheas entirely, or accepted his description of Britain and drew the line at Thule.
Thule’s actual existence was debated for centuries, its possible real identification even still today, and the name Thule eventually came to mean the most northerly occupied place. The name was attached to Greenland when explorer Knud Rasmussen founded a trading post in the far NW corner of the island and named it “Thule.” The United States Air Force cemented the name by building Thule Air Base nearby in the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, the term ultima Thule developed as a literary extension of the geographic idea, meaning “the farthest place” or “a remotely distant goal.” Thus, the title of this post . . . which, admittedly, does not obviously reveal the pictorial topic.
If Thule was a real place, where was it? Some in the past have
identified Thule with the Orkney Islands. That is good enough for me to use
this weird thread of logic to feature some pics from the center of Mainland,
the central island of the Orkneys.
I rather liked Orkney. Crowds at important places could be
minimized, even at the height of the tourist season. This is partly due to the
relatively limited accommodations there. One could find huge clots of tourists,
but they came for organized day-trips via ferry from the north tip of Scotland.
Stuck on bus-tours, they were predictable and easily avoided. The other great
secret is something mentioned by Pytheas: “For it was the case that in these
parts the nights were very short, in some places two, in others three hours
long, so that the sun rose again a short time after it had set” (Geminus, Introduction
to the Phenomena 6.9). Indeed, in Orkney in early July, the sun set around 22:30
(10:30 pm) and rose around 04:00. Tourists seem to arrive about 10:30 and
depart around 16:00, leaving lots of time to see stuff in the early morning or
late afternoon-evening unencumbered.
In the heart of Mainland, Orkney lies a fantastic collection of megalithic monuments. The crown jewel is the Ring of Brodgar (built 2500-2000 BC), the largest stone circle (103.6 m/340 ft) in Scotland and the 3rd largest in the British Isles. It is unusual in that the perfect stone circle is combined with a henge, much like Avebury in England. The site is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and very much the signature location in Orkney (see the great example at left, which also nicely incorporates the low sun). During the main hours of the day, the Ring of Brodgar is crawling with bus loads of day-trippers, but I did not see another living human between 05:30-07:00!
The Ring of Brodgar dominates a narrow peninsula separating
the lochs of Stenness and Harray. A mile to the south are the Stones of
Stenness, four huge megaliths that remain of an earlier stone circle. The site
has an eerie magnificence with its giant standing stones (up to 19 ft high) with
sheep dozing or eating at their bases. An outlier monolith called the Watch
Stone (also 19 ft) dominates the near end of a bridge on the road that leads to
the Ring of Brodgar.
Near the Stones of Stenness are the excavated remains of the
contemporary Barnhouse Settlement, a Neolithic village of 15 or so houses,
including one (Structure Two) that is larger than the others. Past the Watch
Stone and across the bridge are continuing significant excavations of more
Neolithic structures, called the Ness of Brodgar, that continued after
Barnhouse was abandoned. In that later period, Structure Eight, probably for
cultic use, was built by the ruins at Barnhouse. It seems to be oriented—as is
another standing stone—with the largest chamber tomb in the region, Maeshowe
(and another target of many of those bus tours). These interesting sites are
all within a linear mile and a half. There are other significant Neolithic sites
and other wonders in the Orkneys, but they will have to wait. Like Greenland.
One more thing: is there any chance Orkney is the Thule of Pytheas? Almost certainly not. Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law and Roman governor of Britain from 78-84, Julius Agricola, claimed the Roman fleet circumnavigated Britain and, “thus established the fact that Britain was an island. At the same time it discovered and subjugated the Orkney Islands, hitherto unknown. Thule, too, was sighted, but no more; their orders took them no farther” (Tacitus, Agricola 10). This eliminates Orkney as Thule, but brings the Shetland Islands and possibly the Faroe Islands into play. Modern scholarship ignores them and prefers either Iceland or Norway. I should like to travel to all possibilities, but for now this desire is my own ultima Thule.
 Astute readers (obviously you, because you are reading the footnotes) may have noticed that I am not quoting Pytheas himself, but rather other classical authors. This is because Pytheas’ writings are lost, save their quotations by others.
I have always been fascinated by monuments or memorials to the deceased and the psychology behind them, as well as the physical structures themselves. This post is triggered in part by the most recent of the all-too-familiar temporary memorials that appear at scenes of horrific mass shootings in my own country. But not to dwell on that depressing and unfortunately ubiquitous topic, I hereby initiate an occasional series on monuments to long-dead Romans and other figures of antiquity.
Trajan excelled in his 19-year reign and was highly regarded
in life, death, and by Renaissance and early modern historians. Already having
made significant military conquests in Dacia, in AD 114 he set out for
campaigns on the eastern frontier. The problem there was agitation by the
Parthian Empire (originating in Persia—modern Iran—another connection of this
story with contemporary events!). Trajan was incredibly successful in his initial
campaign, taking the Parthian capital Ctesiphon and gaining a foothold on the
Persian Gulf. But reduced success and troubles elsewhere in the Empire caused
him to return towards Rome in 117.
Our main source for Trajan’s last days is Cassius Dio.
Already suffering in health, which he attributed to poison, the Emperor
suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. In early August he sailed
for Rome from Antioch. When Trajan’s health deteriorated the ship put in at the
nearest port, Selinus in Cilicia, where he “suddenly expired” (Cassius
Dio 68.33). Selinus was subsequently renamed Traianopolis in the Emperor’s
honor and memory. Details on the exact disposition of his body are not given,
but his “remains” were transported back to Seleucia, the port of Antioch, for
viewing by his successor, Hadrian, and then to Rome.
On the outskirts of the Turkish city Gazipaşa are the ruins of Selinus/Traianopolis, and on the landward outskirts of them stands a lonely structure known locally as the Şekerhane Köşkü, which refers to the building’s use as a hunting platform for elites during the Seljuk Period. Early western explorers of the area identified it as having a sepulchral function and likely built as a cenotaph (a tomb structure without the honored person’s actual remains) for Trajan. Trajan was the only personality of his magnitude known to have died there and a memorial to him is a logical outcome although the written sources do not mention such. The roof of the edifice was covered in soil and produced wheat and other crops that were grown around it. This layer was cleared in the early 2000s revealing the foundation outlines of a temple-like structure with a place for a cult statue. These and other details now make it likely that the building was not a cenotaph but rather a platform for a temple to the deified Emperor Trajan.
Coins issued in Selinus from the late 2nd-mid 3rd centuries featured a temple to Trajan on the reverse. There is no other suitable candidate for this temple in the extant remains apart from the Şekerhane Köşkü. Further, there are striking parallels to coins featuring the Temple of the Deified Julius Caesar (mentioned above) in Rome, which was situated at the spot of Caesar’s cremation. One of the walls of the Şekerhane Köşkü incorporates an earlier square structure, arguably the cremation pit where Trajan’s corpse was burned—an essential step in Apotheosis (elevation to divine status) for both Caesar and Trajan.
The Emperor’s ashes were eventually transported to Rome
where they were placed in a special chamber at the base of Trajan’s Column, a
magnificent and still-standing 30 meter (98 ft) high column depicting the
Emperor and his troops during the Dacian wars and showing painstaking detail of
the Roman army in action. Trajan’s Column anchors one end of the extensive
Forum of Trajan, the last of the Imperial Fora in Rome.
In addition to physical monuments, Trajan’s legacy includes other
honors. He was universally lauded by contemporary writers and posthumously declared
by the Senate optimus princeps, “the best ruler.” He was considered by
some Christian theologians to be a “virtuous pagan,” and Dante depicts him in
Jupiter’s Heaven in The Divine Comedy. Modern historians have sometimes
questioned Trajan’s accomplishments, and his successor Hadrian (who did
relinquish Trajan’s gains against Persia) now gets better press.
 This argument is effectively made by Michael Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified Trajan,” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections 10 (Sept 2016): 56-68 [this is a special issue also titled Ex Terra Scientia: Papers in Honor of David Soren, eds. R.H Wilkinson and P.P. Creasman]. For the nerds that read footnotes: I actually obtained this issue recently for a current research project and was pleased to find this article there. Ironically, Michael Hoff (the author) had graciously received my research colleague and I at his impressive excavation site within an hour of our most recent visit to the Trajan Temple site.
Hoff, “The Şekerhane Köşkü at Selinus (Cilicia): The Temple of the Deified
I was considering some sort of “seasonal” post relating to
that hazard of early Spring in the USA: the looming April 15 tax deadline. I
have not dealt with my complicated tax situation for 2018 yet and need to get
on it. Anyhow, my consideration of a tax theme turned to resolve at University
Baptist Church this morning; a result of the New Testament passage (Matthew 22)
and related sermon on the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar.
More about the connection below, but stay with me . . .
In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum. Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.
The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform)
is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from
robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire
superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing.
A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a
recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must
pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat
hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings
on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.
What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.
While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. For more on that, and the connection to Jesus’ answer to the question posed to him on paying taxes to Caesar, stay tuned for the next post. For now, I have to go work on my taxes . . .
BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. At this moment I am glad.
I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.
First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see
it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?”
in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by
bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The
geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert,
where there were no neighbors.
As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect
that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this
road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his
week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the
Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from
the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or
die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by.
And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or
judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along
next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy
luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there
is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good
Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist
of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners
no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the
victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst
of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.
But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.
I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.
Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization
that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus
at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked,
“which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among
It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to
Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his
disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The
Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical
difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were
the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping
the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans
could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and
talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.
It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our
potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his
generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first
glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or
can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the
challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of