Who Is My Neighbor? | Sojourners

Who Is My Neighbor?

The opposite of loving your neighbor is being indifferent to them.

A YOUNG LAWYER asks Jesus what he must do “to inherit eternal life.” To which Jesus gives a simple answer: Love God and love your neighbor. There you have it, says Jesus. But the inquisitor asks Jesus a follow-up question: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25–37). It’s clear from the context that this lawyer was seeking to diminish or limit the scope of who counted as his neighbor. The tone isn’t one of expanding the reach of loving his neighbor but of restricting it. Jesus answers with the exemplary story of the Good Samaritan in a way that upends expectations and gets to the heart of the question. The lesson of Jesus’ parable is much deeper than the traditional understanding of the Good Samaritan—that Jesus is simply commending the act of reaching out to another in need, as the Samaritan does, as opposed to the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story who famously passed by the man because they were too busy or preoccupied or afraid of being late to an important religious meeting.

But what Jesus is trying to teach us here goes much deeper than simple compassion and service to the needy. The Samaritans were not “good,” as far as the Judeans of Jesus’ day were concerned. They were a despised mixed race, considered half-breeds and foreigners by the Jews. They usually provoked disgust, not admiration. But Jesus chooses the hated “other” as his example of who our neighbor is. Jesus then describes the Samaritan taking actions that show us what it means to be a neighbor as the Samaritan reaches out to someone who was an “other” to him with practical assistance, self-sacrifice, and risk on the dangerous highway of the Jericho Road.

Martin Luther King Jr., in the final sermon of his life, the day before he was assassinated, talked about the dangers of the Jericho Road: “It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing,” King said. “And so the first question that ... the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was meant not just to call people to service and self-sacrifice, but also to disrupt and challenge their concept of who their neighbors were and were not. It was a direct attack on tribalism, both that of his fellow Jews and of all of us, and a proclamation that those who choose to join Jesus’ tribe would be known for reaching out to and standing with all the other tribes. According to Jesus, the test of who your neighbor is will be shown by how you treat someone who is different from you. I believe that when Jesus’ lesson becomes the measure of who our neighbors are and how we treat them, this story can change cultures and even politics.

Getting outside our path

Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez put it this way: “Who is my neighbor? The neighbor was the Samaritan who approached the wounded man and made him his neighbor. The neighbor ... is not he whom I find in my path, but rather he in whose path I place myself, he whom I approach and actively seek.”

Who is in our daily path and who is not? That is part of the problem—we are limited in loving our neighbor by our narrow pathways of the “neighbors” around us, our people, those we consider “us.” Jesus is saying we have to go outside the boundaries of our normal path to find the people who are the ultimate test of the question “who is my neighbor?” The neighbor we need most to reach out to will only be found if we actively seek them out, by deliberately placing ourselves in different pathways than those that are normal to us and our people. The clear call of Jesus to love the neighbors outside our path is seriously challenged and regularly compromised by our racial geography—a geography that is not put in place by accident, but by public policy and deliberate strategy, and which prevents people from finding their “neighbors.”

Given the residential, economic, racial, and religious segregation that defines where most of our lives tread, we can’t really do what Jesus says until we disrupt our normal pathways by moving outside of them. We need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to transgress those boundaries—the ones that make it impossible to follow Jesus’ answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”

Let me give you a personal example. My father, Jim Wallis Sr., was an officer in World War II, sent out to the Pacific after graduating from college, getting married, and being commissioned as an officer in the Navy on one very busy day. After the war, most returning veterans, like my dad, came home to an enormous opportunity. Our young family, like many others, received two huge things: the GI Bill for education and an FHA loan for a house. When you get a free education and the chance to afford your first home, you immediately become middle class—and that’s what our government did for us. We moved onto a nice street called River Park in a lovely neighborhood in the Detroit area called Redford Township, with almost every home a three-bedroom ranch house headed by a World War II veteran. My siblings and I were able to walk easily and safely to the wonderful nearby elementary school.

Everyone in our neighborhood, school, and nearby church looked just like us. Black World War II veterans, like the black sailors aboard my dad’s destroyer, almost never got the GI Bill or an FHA loan. Jim Crow laws prevented that in the South, and segregated education and banking policies did so in the North. No Detroit banks would lend money to black families for a new home, and the schools their kids went to, not surprisingly, were not nearly as good as our school. But we never thought about it or talked about it. In the white community, no one did. We were all on the same path.

Eye-opening moments

As a teenager, I started to ask some questions about all that, about why people seemed to live very differently and separately in white and black Detroit. The hard questions weren’t welcome and were never honestly answered in my all-white world. If I really wanted to find the answers, I realized, I would need to step outside of the boundaries of my path and ask the same questions elsewhere.

My questions took me into the city of Detroit, where I worked low-paying summer jobs alongside other young men my age—but they were black, and I was white, and I began to realize that was what made all the difference. While we were all born in Detroit, we had been raised in different countries. I was making money for college and they were supporting their families. I also sought out black churches, which I had never been to, nor had black Christians from those churches come to ours.

There were many moments that became great eye-openers for me, moments that in the faith community are sometimes called “epiphanies.” One involved my friend Butch, a fellow janitor in a downtown office building who brought me home for dinner one night to meet his family. I will never forget what his mother said to me about the Detroit police: “I tell my children, if you’re ever lost and can’t find your way home, and you see a policeman, hide behind a building or duck under a stairwell; wait until he passes and then find your way home.” As she spoke, the words my mother told her five kids echoed in my head: “If you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, look for a policeman; he is your friend and will hold you by the hand and bring you home safely.” That story from 50 years ago is, of course, still painfully real these days. The reason I believe stories from black parents today is that I found a place, outside my path, where I heard those stories a long time ago.

Changing my pathway and the places I go has continually changed my life—over and over again. My worldview has always been most changed by two things: being in places I was not supposed to be and meeting people I was not supposed to know, much less become “neighbors” with.

This is what Jesus meant when he said to love our neighbor—to get outside of our tribal pathways and listen to the lives of those whose pathways have been so different from ours. They are the test of loving our neighbor. That biblical and spiritual reality has never been truer in my lifetime than it is right now. We need to reclaim Jesus’ message by seeking and finding our true neighbors, if our faith is going to have any integrity or our democracy any health.

The two great loves

When asked by the religious leaders of his day, What is the greatest commandment? Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). Loving God and loving your neighbor sums up both religion and law; everything starts with and goes back to these two great loves.

These vital questions must not be reduced to political and partisan issues between left and right, liberals and conservatives. They must become matters of faith that can bring us together across political boundaries. Jesus meant that our “neighbors can come from surprising places,” wrote New Testament commentator Darrell L. Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary.

Peter Wehner, a conservative evangelical and Republican strategist, compared the actions of President Trump with the teachings of Jesus. “Trumpism is not a political philosophy,” Wehner wrote, “it is a purposeful effort, led by a demagogue, to incite ugly passions, stoke resentments and divisions, and create fear of those who are not like ‘us’—Mexicans, Muslims, and Syrian refugees. But it will not end there. There will always be fresh targets.”

Wehner contrasts that with the principles of Jesus, saying, “[A] carpenter from Nazareth offered a very different philosophy. When you see a wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, Jesus taught, you should not pass him by. ‘Truly I say to you,’ he said in Matthew, ‘to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.’ ... At its core, Christianity teaches that everyone, no matter at what station or in what season in life, has inherent dignity and worth.”

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” His point is simply to be a neighbor. To love God means to show mercy to those in need. An authentic life is found in serving God and caring for others. This is a central tenet of discipleship. Here, human beings fulfill their created role—to love God and be a neighbor to others by meeting their needs. Neighbors are not determined by race, creed, or gender; neighbors consist of anyone in need, all whom are made in the image of God.

New Testament theologian Sharon H. Ringe, in her commentary on Luke, emphasizes that the requirements of loving one’s neighbor include being active: “No one can simply have a neighbor; one must also be a neighbor. ... The story simply stands as yet another challenge to the transformation of daily life and business as usual, which lies at the heart of the practice of discipleship.” And that means to cross boundaries.

Hunger for a deeper conversation

The opposite of loving your neighbor is not always hating them, but just being indifferent to them. Perhaps it is indifference to our neighbors that allows our willingness to ignore their lives, their needs, and even their children. If we are to be honest, we must admit that white privilege, and privilege of any kind, allows this indifference. It has been striking to me as I travel the country how oblivious many white people are to their own privilege. When you are used to white privilege, racial equality feels like a threat. Or as one young black man at a forum said, “If you can’t see white privilege, you have it.”

But the hopeful thing I have found is that many are hungry for a deeper conversation about what and who our neighbors are—with concrete action as a result. For example, I have always been struck by how conversations between mothers about their hopes, fears, and dreams for their children are such bonding experiences (for dads too, but even more for moms). But when those conversations are not occurring across lines of difference such as race, religion, immigration status, and others, it is such a lost opportunity for learning how to be neighbors together. That kind of deep listening to our neighbors to whom we have been indifferent may be the most important spiritual discipline for us Christians, especially white Christians, going forward.

When we realize that the very heart of all religion and law is “Love God, love your neighbor”—particularly the ones who are different from you—it can transform our lives, our communities, and our world.

This appears in the November 2019 issue of Sojourners
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