Officials said a 'good Samaritan' saved lives in Greenwood. But what does that mean?

·8 min read

Tragedy struck Central Indiana Sunday when a gunman shot and killed three people and injured two more at the Greenwood Park Mall before he was shot and killed by an armed bystander.

That armed citizen was later identified as Elisjsha Dicken, a 22-year-old from Seymour. He was legally carrying a 9mm pistol and fired several rounds to kill the suspected gunman. The Johnson County coroner's office ruled Tuesday that the suspected shooter was shot eight times, and none were self inflicted.

As details emerged following the shooting on Sunday, police and local government officials began to use the term “good Samaritan” to describe Dicken.

“It appears that a ‘good Samaritan’ that was armed observed the shooting in progress and shot the shooter,” Greenwood Police Chief Jim Ison said in a press briefing Sunday.

In his 9:30 p.m. statement following the shooting Sunday, Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers echoed the sentiment, adding: “This person saved lives tonight. On behalf of the City of Greenwood, I am grateful for his quick action and heroism in this situation.”

More about Dicken: 'Saving countless lives.' Armed bystander praised for intervening in Greenwood mall shooting

The roots of the "good Samaritan" draw back to the Bible, as part of a parable from Jesus teaching compassion and mercy towards strangers. But its use in a social context in American culture has drawn additional meaning.

What is a 'good Samaritan?'

The Parable of the “good Samaritan” in the Bible is recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus tells the story of a man who was robbed, beaten and left on the side of the road. A Jewish priest and a Levite, or descendant from Levi, both passed by the injured man but did not help him. In the Bible, Levi, son of Jacob, was the founder of the Tribe of Levi, which was one of the Tribes of Israel. Levites, descended from Levi, had special religious status.

But a Samaritan came and helped the man. He took the man to an inn, cared for him and paid for the man’s stay with his own money.

Jesus' identification of the man as Samaritan was especially notable because of a fraught history between the Samaritans and the Jews, eventually resulting in a schism,

The term “good Samaritan” has been commonly used to describe a person who helps a stranger in need, despite there being no obligation for them to do so.

"Samaritans were outsiders," Peter Cajka, assistant teaching professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told IndyStar. "The good Samaritan had no incentive to help this person, but did, to break the boundaries in his culture to transcend that, to see a human."

Cajka also said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. referenced the "good Samaritan" in some of his sermons and speeches to "reference the love of God, representing the love of neighbor."

Rev. Dr. Sean Holloway, senior pastor for First Baptist Church of Greenwood, said "there's quite often multiple or even double meanings" of Jesus' parables.

"What he's trying to teach is that, no matter the situation, no matter where we are, we are responsible for each other," Holloway said. "And we should extend care to those who .... normally, we wouldn't be in that position or we wouldn't be expected to render help but we do, and we care for each other in that way."

What are 'good Samaritan' laws?

“Good Samaritan” laws offer limited legal protections for off-duty medical personnel or bystanders who intervene to help someone in an emergency, usually a medical emergency.

"Good Samaritan laws are written to encourage bystanders to get involved in these and other emergency situations without fear that they will be sued if their actions inadvertently contribute to a person’s injury or death," Janet Lubman Rathner wrote for the Laborers' Health & Safety Fund of North America.

The “good Samaritan” statute in the Indiana code provides legal protection for a person who "in good faith, gratuitously renders emergency care at the scene of the emergency or accident."

The language states that a person, whether an off-duty medical professional or a bystander, who comes upon or is called to the scene of an emergency or accident is immune from civil liability if the act or omission of providing care or providing or arranging for further care results in personal injury, unless there’s acts or omissions of “gross negligence or wanton misconduct” involved. None of the various protections in this “good Samaritan” statute explicitly mention protections for those intervening with force.

Attorney Guy Relford previously told IndyStar that Dicken’s actions appear to be legal and justified under Indiana law. Relford announced Monday that he is representing Dicken, IndyStar previously reported. Dicken is cooperating with the police investigation, Chief Ison said.

Indiana code also stipulates that a person, in this case, Dicken, “is justified in using deadly force” and “ does not have a duty to retreat" if the person "reasonably believes that that force is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to the person or a third person." This language is commonly known as the “Stand Your Ground” provision.

In addition, Dicken would also be justified to use force to stop a “forcible felony,” defined as a “felony that involves the use or threat of force against a human being, or in which there is imminent danger of bodily injury to a human being.”

"I will say his actions were nothing short of heroic," Ison said Monday. "He engaged the gunman from quite a distance with a handgun, was very proficient in that, very tactically sound, and as he moved to close in on the suspect he was also motioning for people to exit behind him."

Mayor Myers also spoke at Monday’s press conference, saying Dicken saved “countless lives.”

“We're very thankful for a young 22-year-old man, who stopped this violent act. This young man, Greenwood's good Samaritan, acted within seconds, stopping the shooter and saving countless lives," Myers said. "Our city, our community and our state is grateful for his heroism in this situation."

What precedent is there for calling someone a 'good Samaritan?'

In the book, Shooting to Kill: Socio-Legal Perspectives on the Use of Lethal Force, authors of the second chapter John Kleinig and Tziporah Kasachkoff explain part of what lies behind "good Samaritan" duty, in context with discussion of why people feel allowing someone to be killed is ethically worse than letting someone die without intervention.

“This difference between allowing to die and allowing to be killed and our sense that the latter is morally worse than the former is reflected in our belief that our duty to defend (to the extent that we are able to do so) those who are lethally attacked by others is more stringent and pressing than our duty to help those who will die absent our intervention. (This latter obligation is sometimes referred to as a ‘Good Samaritan’ duty.),” Kasachkoff and Kleinig wrote.

Cajka said that “the Bible is basically like a public language for the United States” because of the country’s roots in evangelical Protestantism.

"In American history, metaphors in the Bible and stories in the Bible are basically structuring elements of public discourse," Cajka said.

Holloway said that the cultural meaning of "good Samaritan" is different than the meaning in a Biblical sense and that referring to Dicken as a "good Samaritan" is an appropriate use of the cultural axiom.

"I'm very glad that the person had the instinct to do that," Holloway said. "I'm sad that he had to do it to begin with. Of course, it is becoming more and more commonplace across our nation."

Though the religious context is missing some key points, namely the two people who could have helped the man but did not, Holloway said the overall message can be applied.

"If we're taking in Jesus's main point (which) is, we should care for one another no matter who they are, and then even biblically it can be appropriate as well," Holloway said.

“Good Samaritan” is far from the only Christian metaphor to make it into the American cultural zeitgeist. There’s the tale of the “Prodigal Son,” referencing the parable of the son who returned home and father who welcomed him with open arms; flipping tables, referencing Jesus’ angry actions upon seeing people sell things at the temple; washing of the feet, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples before Passover.

In 2021, 63% of Americans self-identified as Christian, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Cajka added that, "if there's a book that Americans have read, that a majority of Americans can share a public consciousness with and a shared language, it's the Bible,” he said.

The original context for the “good Samaritan” parable and its use in the law, as compared to its reference to Dicken, is textually not an accurate metaphor, Cajka said.

“Those (laws) are about someone who's suffering who needs direct help, but is not inflicting suffering on other people necessarily, right?” Cajka said. “So the metaphor doesn't work at all.”

However, Cajka said the way that religious metaphors are used as public language differs from their use in an actual Biblical context, and “the accuracy doesn't matter,” Cajka said.

“It's a way to publicly communicate,” he said.

A question to consider, Cajka said, is “what does it mean that this metaphor could slip into this discourse really quickly and easily?”

“Jesus’ parable on the Samaritan, why would it be used to justify violence?” Cajka asked. “But that just also strikes me as a classic American construct, to use something to justify violence. The right type of violence, against a ‘bad guy.’”

IndyStar reporters Ryan Martin, Tony Cook and Dayeon Eom contributed to this story.

Contact IndyStar trending reporter Claire Rafford at or on Twitter @clairerafford.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Greenwood Park Mall shooting: The cultural meaning of 'good Samaritan'