The last several weeks I’ve done a great deal of thinking about what it means to be a neighbor. The Gospel reading two Sundays ago was the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the lawyer asks: “Who is my neighbor?” He wants to know who is with “us” and who is with “them.”
The political conventions this week and next will offer their own definitions of who is with “us” and who is with “them.” And people will lap it up because it speaks to something very human – identity. More specifically – tribal identity.
Who is part of my tribe? By tribe I mean, who is part of the group I identify with. The tribe can be based on nationality, political leanings, skin color variations, type of work I do, language I speak, dialect I speak, what sports team do I cheer for, religion, subgroup within a religion, etc. We are told that our tribes are the ones we should care for – we should defend. They are like family to us. Anyone else is not our tribe – they are not to be trusted. In fact, they have less worth and deserve less respect than members of our tribe. Besides we have God on our side – we can point to some random verse taken out of context to support why we divide people the way we do.
Most of the time, this tribal mentality stays inside people’s heads. It might come out in the words that are communicated to others not part of the tribe – making for heated exchanges. It might come out in other ways too – some kind of physical representation that shows pride in a tribe – like a flag or other object that people can easily identify with.
But we also see physical violence as well. This becomes a concern when trust in institutions break down. We turn to violence when words will not solve our differences, when words become gasoline on a lit fire. We turn to violence when we no longer trust – even if the trust we had was extremely small.
Resorting to physical violence is really only the outgrowth of what we think. We have violent and dehumanizing beliefs about our neighbors, although we don’t call them neighbors – we have other labels for them instead. And so we can speak in dehumanizing ways with violent labels.
It is just a small step to take, a small line to cross, to carry out violent actions against our neighbors. Besides, if we have believe that they are less than human, less than equal in rights and respect, then when institutions start to brake down, we must act to uphold those beliefs we have held dear. We can’t rely on institutions to maintain the status quo. We can’t rely on them to provide us a safe space to hold our beliefs that there is an “us” and a “them.” We can’t rely on the status quo to keep “us” separated from “them” – to keep us safe from the vermin. We must have war. We must take the law into our own hands. We must defend our honor. We must avenge the offense. We are justified!
When this happens we have to come face-to-face with “them” and that has become too much because something has to give when we interact with the “them.” Most likely it would be our beliefs about “them.” That is too painful for many people to even consider. Especially in an age when we will only look for evidence of how vile “they” are rather than be open to seeing who they are – people just like us, but with some differences. So we act out of the pain. We act out out beliefs. We become violent – forcing “them” to become the very people we hate and dehumanize. It justifies our beliefs. It makes it much easier to kill, hurt, or defile someone that you hate or you deem as a threat.
But the theology of the neighbor is far different. Jesus presents a story to the lawyer. He tells the story of a man who has been beaten and the hero of the story is the Samaritan – someone the lawyer has been taught is not part of his tribe, not to be trusted, someone who it’s ok to hate and revile.
This would have been very upsetting to hear. We sense how upsetting it is at the end of the story when Jesus asks the lawyer: which of the people who came upon the man who was beaten was a neighbor? The lawyer gives an answer – “The one who showed mercy.” This is technically correct. He’s a lawyer, so he knows how to give technically correct answers without having to say words he would rather not say. (in a way, aren’t we all like this?) In this case, he can’t bring himself to say Samaritan. It’s just too painful for him. It contradicts everything he believes about the Samaritan. It’s too painful to even think about equating Samaritan with anything good and he can’t bring himself to say Samaritan.
The theology of the neighbor is this – the tribes we align ourselves with are human distinctions and separations. God sees us differently. God sees us as a part of creation – something that God loves and even said was good – all of it. Thinking in terms of creation means taking a much larger view of everything. It goes beyond our little tribes, our little communities, our little language variations, our little nationalities, etc. Thinking in terms of creation is so much larger. The differences are just so small in the grand scheme of things.
God sees variations in God’s creation, but these exemplify the beauty of creation – so diverse and unique, yet all part of God’s creation. When we see the unity of it all, we can see others as neighbors, not as threats or as something so radically different from ourselves, because they aren’t – we are all part of God’s creation, God’s kingdom.
Yes, we might think, act, sound, move, and look different, but do we really think that God or creation is so small that these variations and differences create insurmountable divisions? Really? Maybe if we believe that God is just like us, or that we can control God. Maybe if we make God into an idol – something that we create, rather than the other way around.
The theology of the neighbor comes down to this – which way do we go? Do we believe that God aligns Godself with us, our beliefs about the world, stands on our side, carries our flag and rides into battle to defend us and our way of thinking? Is God really that small? Is God created in our image?
Or do we carry a different vision – it is us who are moved to be in alignment with God. We are the small ones. We are changed so that that our beliefs about the world and creation change. We see the world differently. We are changed by laying down our violent thoughts, beliefs, and actions to take up something far riskier – being a neighbor to all.
Being a neighbor means having our trust in God. Being a neighbor means seeing past the divisions and labels. Being a neighbor is costly. Being a neighbor means doing things that go against common belief. Being a neighbor means we are more concerned with living out what God calls us to be rather than with being right about God. Being a neighbor means that we are not in control and that we acknowledge that we don’t know the answers. Being a neighbor is what we are called to. Being a neighbor means being vulnerable. Being a neighbor means taking the first step to be a peacemaker, to show mercy, to offer hope, rather than just talking about it or waiting for someone else to start. Being a neighbor means acting out of love and with love – a love that is unconditional.
The world offers us conditions, divisions, labels. God offers creation and calls it good. Let us see that we are a part of creation, not apart from it.