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Drawing circles

In the newspaper of December 1, 2010, one headline states that “those who help a fellow man out of mercifulness/charity, deserve no punishment”. As this will look like a tautology to most of us (or so I hope) you will need some background. The Dutch government was proposing legislation that will make illegal stay in this country punishable by law. In parliament this had led to discussions if helping illegal persons is actionable. During 2012, this same discussion was back in Dutch politics.

The item of discussion here is what ‘helping’ really means. This, I believe, is very much about drawing lines, drawing circles around your person. There is an imaginary circle around every one of us that is the limit of what and whom we feel responsible for. In our behaviour, this is a very visible circle. In a quite literal sense, this circle is where we draw the line – the line that divides those who can count on us from those whom we do not care for. The line that divides things we care for, and things we do not. Where you draw the circle is where you define the limits of your interest, of your compassion to be. You will not help those outside your circle – you have drawn the line.

This is a telling discussion in our parliament these days; the outcome  of this debate defines whether concepts like ‘charity’ and ‘mercy’ will still have any meaning in the form of law. If the vote goes to making it actionable to help illegals, the smallest possible circle will have been drawn.

The direction of reasoning could be a negative one – you are a threat to me and therefore I wish to exclude you from my circle of responsibility.

The reasoning could be in the other direction – I wish to include you in my circle of responsibility and therefore I could help you if needed.

It is a telling fact that the ‘inclusive’ reasoning these days comes from the social democrats (who are part of the opposition parties). The christian democrats hesitantly support the social democrats – but they’re talking more about ‘exceptions to the rule’ than about the fundamental issue of charity. It seems that crime & punishment are more on their minds these days than  are charity & mercy.

Should they read Dostojewski’s Crime and Punishment, they would learn that forgiveness and mercy are more important than whatever the rule of law would have to say. The paradox here is that the ‘direction of reasoning’ of the individual will determine the social cohesion within society, much more so than the ‘direction of reasoning’ that gets encoded into law.

For the Good Samaritan, there is no discussion. He knows where to draw the line, his circle cannot be wide enough. Everybody in need of help should get it, regardless of how small other people would draw their little circle.

The smaller you draw your circles, the more fragmented society gets. We are in dire need of Good Samaritans these days. And not only for their help, but for the example they set in widening our circles.

And Good Samaritans don’t seem to come from the christian democrat party these dasy; a telling fact indeed…