A return to neighborliness

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump and I didn’t participate in the Women’s Day marches, but it’s essential to me that I am in neighborly relationships with both sets of people who did. Neighborliness requires that I not let ideology or ethnicity or any of a list of factors separate me from those God has joined me with.

Every age and every culture has its tensions. This past electoral season in the United States was particularly tense for us, but it’s nothing new. We humans are pretty well versed at disagreeing and dividing.

Even with social media and mass media as effective tools for fanning the flames of discord, we haven’t invented anything when it comes to hatred and disintegration. We’ve always been pros.

In the midst of another tense time, Jesus was asked a question about neighborliness: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

It was meant to be a slippery question, one the asker was attempting to use in order to reduce the number of people he was required to act with love toward, since he and Jesus had agreed that loving neighbors is at the center of what God wants for humanity (second only to loving God himself). Perhaps the asker wasn’t thinking of the handful of houses next to his like we do when we think of neighbors, but he certainly wasn’t thinking about the wide range of people Jesus included as neighbors in the story he told in response to the question (here’s the full context of Luke 10:25-37).

In the story, a man in mugged by thieves and left for dead. Fortunately, two different people who should have been neighborly toward him pass by: a priest and a Levite. The Law of Moses required them to act in the wounded man’s best interest, but both of them skirted him and continued on their way. No explanation is given for their behavior. Perhaps they had what they thought were good reasons — in a hurry, not wanting to become ritually unclean by touching blood, not wanting to be inconvenienced by taking responsibility for the man, etc. We can speculate, but Jesus doesn’t. Jesus just lays out the bald fact: They didn’t help as neighbors do.

Amazingly, a third passerby comes upon the beaten up man. But it’s a man no one in that tense time would have counted as a neighbor. In fact, where the priest and Levite were expected to help out, this third man was expected to not help. If anything, they might have expected him to give a little kick as he walked by.

The third man was a Samaritan and the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans at the time is well-documented both within the Bible and elsewhere. The distance between them was much further than between any red or blue voters. It was visceral and generational, having been reinforced for hundreds of years. The United States isn’t old enough to have nurtured this kind of hostility. What we’ve got going on right now pales in the face of the mutual spite they shared.

But the Samaritan not only touches the wounded man, he takes care of him and pays for additional long-term care. He goes far beyond what was expected of the priest and Levite. He treats the stranger as a family member.

The story isn’t so shocking to those of us who grew up hearing it told and retold in Sunday school. But it left Jesus’ listeners stunned.

Jesus majors in doing the impossible. And here he does something almost more impossible than resurrection: He turns age-old antagonists into neighbors.

In an era of red and blue, Jesus doesn’t call us to be purple, a wishy-washy mix of both. Rather, when he says, “Go and do likewise,” he calls for us to remain ourselves but to extend the embrace of neighborliness to others who remain themselves as well.

The Samaritan doesn’t lay conditions on his service. He doesn’t convert the battered Jew. He doesn’t nod to himself and congratulate himself for being a better person for helping a Jew who wouldn’t help him.

The Samaritan retains the core humanity of the man with whom he has deep-seated cultural and theological difference. He doesn’t think in terms of Samaritan-vs.- Jew, he thinks in terms of humans who are each other’s neighbor.

Where I live in Bend, Oregon, we’ve been buried under several feet of snow during the past few weeks. There was so much of the white stuff that my kids had to miss eight days of school — eight! and in a city that knows how to deal with snow and rarely even gives a single snow day in a school year.

At first, the snow was magical and we loved the wintery warmth it lent to our homes as we huddled inside. Everything had a picture postcard beauty to it. But then ice dams built up and the weight of feet of snow on our roofs began turning into leaks and everyone was suddenly outside, shoveling snow from our roofs and digging each other’s cars out when they got stuck.

A common obstacle brought us together as we discovered a need for one another we hadn’t had before. We shared tools and inspected each others roofs. We worked and laughed and helped and became more neighborly as we did so.

Neighbors find common ground because they live on common ground. Literally. To be neighborly in our other relationships requires establishing common ground.

More than 20 years ago, I heard someone speak who holds a different viewpoint from me on an issue that’s unimportant here. I didn’t find his argument convincing, but I did wholeheartedly agree with something he said which I’ve repeated to myself hundreds of times since:

When you see a movement happening within the surrounding culture, move toward it. They’ve got a valid point, one which needs to be listened to, thought through, and responded to in humility and love. But that doesn’t mean swallowing it whole, because along with what’s valid in the movement, there is always something invalid about it as well.

Trump and his voters have some valid concerns and some invalid concerns and methods. The Women’s Day marchers have some valid concerns and some invalid concerns and methods. If I’m to be a good neighbor to both sets of people, I need to hear their concerns, weed our the invalid from the valid, move toward what is true, remain humble, and retain a neighborliness in my relationships with them.

This is hard work, this neighborly thing. It requires me to listen to those I’d rather block out. It requires me to move and change, because I’m being challenged on every side by valid concerns. And frankly, I’d much rather have everyone else change to be like me while leaving me alone. But God in his wisdom has something far better for them and for me.