What do we owe our neighbors? Not just those in visible need, but those who fit the more conventional definition – i.e. those who live right next to us?
Jesus doesn’t get points for originality on his response to this one. He quotes Leviticus (19:18), of all books: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Where he gets original is in the follow-up question. So who’s my neighbor? He responds, of course, with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? When Jesus gets the response, “The one who showed him mercy” (even though the one who showed mercy was the embodiment of the despised “other”), Jesus says “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37)
We’re pretty comfortable these days with this more expansive definition of neighbor. It’s the narrower, more traditional definition that gives some of us pause. How well do we know the people who live next to us? Does a polite “hello” or head nod as we pass in the hall or on the sidewalk count as love?
As an apartment dweller, I admit to a certain reserve when it comes to my neighbors. Sheer proximity makes overt friendliness a bit challenging. I hear them cough sometimes through the walls. I hear their babies cry. They hear more than they might wish to of my life. Given all the involuntary violations of privacy, isn’t it an act of respect (if not love exactly) to let my neighbors be?
In the case of journalist Peter Lovenheim, author of In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, it was a tragedy that got him thinking more seriously about his neighbors. A murder-suicide happened on his street. One of his neighbors shot his wife and then himself. Over the years that followed, Lovenheim wondered how the people who lived right next to this family, himself included, knew almost nothing about their lives. He set out to change that sense of distance in some pretty interesting ways, including sleeping over at his neighbors’ houses. (To get a bit more of his story, click here.)
While I’m not recommending this as a general practice, I do wonder how well we do in our relationships with our neighbors – or what Lovenheim describes at one point as “a relationship of reciprocal responsibility based on physical closeness and the potential need for mutual aid” (p. 56).
It took the blizzard last January for me to meet some of my neighbors. Combatting cabin fever, we found ourselves actually talking as we dug out our cars. We loaned each other shovels and helped to clear the sidewalks of some elderly folk across the street. It’s not the kingdom of God in its fullness certainly, but it was a start.
I wonder what our lives would look like, as a city and as a parish, if we did more to cultivate the virtue of neighborliness – if we got to know our neighbors well enough to see their less visible needs, if (gasp!) they got to know us that well.
Come to think of it, I have a neighbor I’ve been meaning to invite over for dinner for months now. Maybe it’s time to get past my good intentions and actually take the leap. How about you? What might neighborliness look like in your world?