Who's My Neighbor?
Drinking is not my thing, but I feel as if I’ve been nursing the world’s longest hangover. The persistent ugliness of the midterm election season - and the accompanying drumbeat of tragic and near-tragic events this autumn - gave me a serious case of wanting to hide under a rock until a nicer society might evolve.
To preserve a morsel of sanity, as the election approached I periodically “went dark,” doing my best to avoid any electronic device that might administer another dose of venom. As a minister I know my responsibility is to be alert to events. Theology is only theory if divorced from reality. I’m called to comfort the afflicted and respond swiftly to injustice and evil. But in our present world of newsfeed overload, even I need an uneventful day now and then.
At the end of those unplugged hours it was often left to my wife to update me on the latest absurdity or heartbreak. With my bubble of blissful ignorance burst, I fell into the familiar funk of wondering how, when, and why we appear to have descended into angry tribes eager to demonize, dehumanize – and in extreme cases – literally destroy our neighbors.
Oddly enough, I still have faith that people are essentially good. But I’ve come to the conclusion that many of us have lost sight of what it means to be a neighbor. The greatest of ethical lessons, consistent across religions and humanistic philosophies, is focused on how we treat our neighbors. “Do to others as you’d have them do to you,” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” are bedrock principles for any just and civil society.
Those phrases roll off the tongue so nobly until we’re faced with the question Jesus famously asked: “Then who is your neighbor?” That’s where the rubber hits the road, and it seems we’ve forgotten the truth that someone we find odd, foreign, frightening, and even wrong-headed is still in fact our neighbor. Like it or not, for our lives together to be characterized by trust, civility, respect, and peaceful coexistence, loving our neighbors is not an option.
No one promises us our neighbors will be people we agree with or admire. The rich tapestry of humanity is knit through with threads that inevitably rub us the wrong way. We may believe our neighbors are boorish dolts with repugnant political ideals. They may be people we’ve been warned are somehow against us. So, why should we love them as we love ourselves? How’s that even possible?
It’s not always easy, but I’ve found getting to know someone you’d otherwise avoid leads to discovering you indeed share things in common. As diverse as humans may be, we all have the need to be understood, valued, accepted and respected. We all seek belonging, meaning and purpose. We all have people we love or have loved. We all own a story to share, to anyone with the patience and grace to listen.
Finding and acknowledging those most basic universal touchstones in another person transcends politics, ethnicity, race, gender, economic status, nationality, and religion. It’s one-on-one, slow but steady work we desperately need to pursue. It’s risky and self-giving. It’s ultimately the only way to heal our brokenness. It’s what it means to love.
It’s time to love our neighbor again, and it starts with each of us.