“Who is my neighbor?” Today, I think, this question is more pertinent than ever. Social media is great at creating the illusion that we’re all in each other’s back pocket. But it comes at the cost of making friendship more of an abstraction, as we make “friends” of people who are little more than an avatar on a screen, sharing our thoughts and feelings with people with whom we’ve never shared a cup of coffee. We connect with the virtual neighborhood of social media because we’re disconnected from our real neighbors.
The Catholic and the Neighborhood
Human experience begins with the first community—the family—and then builds up from there to the local community, then to the state and nation. The concrete precedes the abstract. The community and our participation in it are where true solidarity begins. For Catholics, the parish and the community were virtually the same for most of history, right down to immigrants building ethnic neighborhoods around their churches. Only in recent decades has social mobility reduced to the parish the Catholic experience of communitas.
The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1879; cf. Gaudium et Spes 25.1)
For Catholics, the term neighbor has other overtones stemming from the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). But again, the parable speaks to our concrete experience of the Other: The Samaritan isn’t helping an abstract people or humanity but rather one hapless victim of robbers. The scribe who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” was possibly working from a wider conception which embraced the entire Hebrew nation. Jesus responded by making a cultural enemy his example of neighborliness, destroying the ethnoreligious component and broadening the idea further even while grounding it in a concrete reality with which his audience could identify.
Turning Neighbors into Numbers
By contrast, abstractions such as nation and humanity sever us from concrete instances, at the risk of reducing humans to mere numbers. For example, Dylan Matthews of Vox went to an Effective Altruism conference a couple of years ago, and found that its members displayed “a certain range of worrying pathologies.” Certainly, a preference for saving 1052 estimated future lives from a science-fictional threat rather than improving the lives of 3 billion existing people who live on less than $2.50 a day (2013) speaks more of a love of numbers than a love of people.
In the beginning, EA was mostly about fighting global poverty. Now it’s becoming more and more about funding computer science research to forestall an artificial intelligence-provoked apocalypse. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the computer science majors have convinced each other that the best way to save the world is to do computer science research. Compared to that, multiple attendees said, global poverty is a “rounding error.”
Nationalism, in its broad sense, stems from the fallacy G.K. Chesterton identified as “supposing that because an idea is greater in the sense of larger, therefore it is greater in the sense of more fundamental and fixed and certain” (The Everlasting Man 73). But a nation is nothing unless it’s a union of communities, and communities are nothing unless they’re unions of families and neighbors. The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” has nothing to do with government intervention and everything to do with the bond, the solidarity, between the people that make up the village.
Who Were the Samaritans?
For many people, I’m afraid, the word neighbor has no deeper meaning than the person who just happens to live next door to you. Participants in a national and global economy, we are no longer “rooted”; many of us no longer have the experience of neighborliness because we no longer live in the same houses for two, three, and four decades. Our neighbor is just as transient as we are, living in a house only until “the new house” is built further out into the suburbs, or until a better job halfway across the country comes along, or until divorce forces relocation.
So let’s look at the Good Samaritan parable from a different angle:
In one sense, the Shamerim (Samaritan Hebrew, “Guardians [of the Torah]”) were “neighbors” in that they occupied the lands that had been part of the Davidic Kingdom and which had become the northern Kingdom of Israel after the death of Solomon (ca. 931 BC). However, Judeans and Samaritans considered each other apostates from the true worship of Yahweh. As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). While the few Samaritans that remain still trace their descent from the tribes of Levi and Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim, for centuries the Jews considered them descendants of Babylonians that the Assyrians had brought in to populate Israel during the Exile.
To the Judeans, then, the Samaritans were little more than another class of Gentile, all the more anathema for their rival Torah and claim to “chosen” status. But in the parable, Jesus deliberately contrasts the behavior of the “unclean” Samaritan with the reactions of the priest and the Levite, both unquestionably Jewish and both ritually prohibited from coming into contact with the victim. In making the Samaritan the neighbor of his story, Jesus had also humanized a cultural enemy.
Humanizing the Enemy
It’s easy and cheap, in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona, to stand on a public pulpit like a blog or mainstream-media publication and incite the public to smite the Amalekites (cf. 1 Samuel 15:1-9). It costs nothing to chastise our public leaders if they don’t pronounce the shibboleth just right (cf. Judges 12:6). The white supremacists are a particularly easy target, for they represent an ugliness in the American soul, a stain across the pure story we would rather tell about ourselves as a new “chosen people”. Besides, they’re much easier to put to the sword and destroy their temples.
And the degree to which our culture loses the gospel message is the degree to which our desire to punish racists becomes more pitiless.
Which is why a story like that of Daryl Davis merits pause. Over the course of two decades, and at considerable risk to himself and his family, Davis, an African-American, has managed to talk over two dozen white supremacists out of the Ku Klux Klan. He has their robes, given to him out of gratitude, to prove it. Not only does he regularly put himself in danger, he’s gained opposition from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Black Lives Matter, both of whom wish to see white supremacists completely excluded from society rather than converted.
To the SPLC and BLM, Davis has committed the mortal sin of humanizing the enemy. But Davis is not the only such person. Former US Attorney Andrew Luger, a Jewish man, is active in creating “off-ramp” programs for jihadists and white supremacists, like former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini’s Life After Hate. In a culture increasingly dedicated to the proposition, “If you don’t hate the sinner, you must love the sin,” people like Davis, Luger, and Picciolini dare to assert that our enemy is also our neighbor.
Summary: Be a Neighbor
Our task, strictly speaking, isn’t to rid the world of evil. Rather, it is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). As a second-order consequence of that mandate, it’s our task to build the bonds of solidarity between ourselves and our neighbors, creating “networks of love” that lead to stronger, healthier, more stable communities. It’s easier to make an enemy out of a neighbor than it is to make a neighbor out of an enemy. But a look at the Crucifix over the altar should remind us that we’re not called to do only what comes easily and naturally.
Not everyone has the tools to be a Daryl Davis. So figure out what you can do. Host an open house or a Christmas cookie exchange. Organize a block party. Join a parish ministry. Participate in a school board or city council meeting. Work at a homeless shelter. Form a team and play in a local sports league. Wherever you are, for whatever length of time you’ll be there, be a neighbor and welcome the stranger (cf. Matthew 25:35). By humanizing your neighbors, you’ll find that you become more fully human yourself.