Won't You Be My Neighbor?
I spent a portion of my 8th birthday walking through the streets of a small town in Pennsylvania with my best friend, Tim. On the way home, we walked into Kroger supermarket for the purpose of purchasing a couple of Mountain Dews.
As we stood in the check out line, Tim and I chuckled at a little boy, maybe four years of age, who had accidentally knocked over a supermarket display. His mother reprimanded him. As the two of them, mother and child, walked past us in the store, the little boy stopped to stare at my friend, who was standing right beside me. The little boy was wide-eyed in his observation, as though he were seeing something astonishing. We couldn’t figure out what had captured the boy’s attention so dramatically, but then he made it clear to us. The little boy smiled, pointed his finger at Tim, and spoke these words: “Look, Mommy—a black person!”
Only, he didn’t say “black person.”
Instead, this little boy used a very particular word—a word for black people that has become a vulgarity and an expression of contempt. I had heard the word on television, but never in real life. Mom and Dad had helped me to understand why it was a bad word and why I was never to use it. And yet, there, in the middle of the Kroger supermarket, a little white boy was using that word to describe my best friend in the entire world. The mother and son quickly left the store. But my best friend and I stood there, breathless and silent, knowing that we had just experienced something ugly that we would never forget.
In many ways, it was my introduction to a world in which people are eager to mistreat, marginalize, and sometimes even kill people over the things that make them different. Things like skin color. And culture. And religion. And political ideology. It was my introduction to a world where people are often nurtured in the rhythms of hatred at such a young age that they grow up to be people who can’t wait to dehumanize all the people who are not like them.
Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue reminded me of how sickeningly real this struggle is. I wept. I groaned in despair, counting on the Holy Spirit to take hold of my wordless anguish and transport it to the heart of God as an articulate lamentation. Then, not really knowing why, I turned to a story. A story that Jesus told.
It’s a story about a Samaritan helping a fallen traveler. Remember, Jews and Samaritans were at opposite ends of a religious and cultural feud that was centuries old. My sense is that this feud, as feuds often do, had engendered a spirit of hatred in the relationship between the two communities.
Contempt had become the air that people breathed in the relationship, so much so that people stopped asking why the contempt was there. They simply breathed it, in and out, with heart-hardening regularity.
When this Samaritan stumbles upon the fallen traveler, he glimpses the sacred personhood of the man lying on the filthy road, broken and beaten. He nurses the man’s wounds. He takes him to a nearby inn. He even pays for the man’s room and board. The story that Jesus tells, then, comes down to this: The Samaritan (from whom the Jewish audience would have expected precious little by way of sacrificial compassion) becomes the moral example. “Pay attention to this Samaritan whom you would ordinarily disparage,” Jesus says. “See how he offers a compassionate and countercultural neighborliness to a stranger! Then, GO AND DO LIKEWISE!”
The story illuminates that the Way of Jesus is always about the unsettling and disruptive love of God shaking up the order of things to such an extent that cultural adversaries begin to see one another as neighbors to engage instead of enemies to despise. The Way of Jesus is where the love of God becomes so dynamically transformational that strangers begin to say to one another, “I glimpse a sacred personhood in you that society tells me not to see but that Jesus compels me to see.” That is the worldview we find in Jesus’ story. It is a worldview in which people are so inwardly reconfigured by the love of Jesus that they stubbornly refuse to see differences as a reason to mistreat or kill one another.
I had an unexpectedly poignant conversation one afternoon with a 79-year-old church member whose name was Charlotte. “You know,” she said to me at one point, “I loved my daddy. But I sure didn’t love what he stood for.” She then showed me a black and white photograph of her father, taken just a few years before he died. As I studied the photo, it became clear to me that Charlotte’s father was dressed in the traditional garments of the Ku Klux Klan. The nature of the uniform was unmistakable.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said as she held the photo in her hand, “My daddy was big into the Klan. He hated black people. He hated Jewish people. He hated people from other countries. He pretty much hated everybody who was different from him.” When I mustered the wherewithal to speak out of my stunned silence, this is what I said: “That must have been such a painful way to grow up. But tell me: How were you able to avoid inheriting your father’s hatred?”
“Oh,” she said, “that wasn’t hard. ‘Cause my best friend growing up was a black girl who lived right down the road with her family. We played together. We talked to God together. We ate lunch together. We learned how to read together. Daddy always hated her for the color of her skin. But, for my friend and me, the color of our skin became just another reason to love each other.”
“Don’t you see?” she said. “Daddy never let Jesus write a new story in his heart about how to treat people who are different than us. He went to church every Sunday. But he never let Jesus write a new story in his heart.”
In this world where anti-Semitism and other expressions of racism fuel the kind of hatred that inspires people to kill one another over their differences, maybe the most important thing the church can do is to produce disciples who have allowed Jesus to write a new story in their hearts about how to treat people who are different from us. In the new story, hatred gives way to repentance; the Way of Jesus begins to dismantle the rhetoric of a polarized culture; and even the most diverse people become neighbors who engage in conversation over the fences.
I learned the theme song from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” early on: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor—Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Please won’t you be my neighbor?”
Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister who started his neighborhood show in Pittsburgh, the same city with the Tree of Life synagogue.
Jesus tells a story about a radical and vulnerable neighborliness, offered where it was least expected. Then he has the audacity to say to us, “Go and do likewise.”
It makes me think that, in the aftermath of Saturday’s massacre at the synagogue, perhaps the most urgent question that the world needs to hear from the church is something like this: “Won’t you be my neighbor?!”
Won’t you be my neighbor, so that together we might find our way out of fear and into a creative way of valuing one another? Won’t you be my neighbor, so that together we might stubbornly resist the temptation to kneel at the altars of derision and contempt? Won’t you be my neighbor, so that a mystical and transcendent neighborliness might become as natural to us as breathing and every bit as urgent?
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