“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
“To love one’s neighbor is a tough command. It works better for people who live far away.” -C. J. Langenhoven
I’ve been going through a bit of a weird time in my life. By that I mean that I’ve been questioning a lot of my previous beliefs and assumptions about the world and how I make decisions. I’ve been joking about having a quarter-life crisis for a while now, and now that I am actually almost 25 I’m admitting that it’s not really a joke. I’ve been having an underlying crisis/transformation of faith and identity, and I’m questioning pretty much everything.
But I’m not saying this as a negative thing. In fact, I think it has only been positive so far. Because how else am I to really, truly learn if I don’t ask questions and really think about who am I am and what I believe? Sure, I could just blindly accept everything people tell me, but now that I’m an adult and out of school, I’ve realized that there are more ways of looking at the world than just what my teachers, parents, doctors, pastors, and other authority figures told me. Although I guess most people realize this while they are adolescents, but I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer.
I think something that I was afraid of in the beginning of my significant question-asking was that I would lose my faith. But that means that for some reason I either thought that questions would lead me further away from the truth instead of closer to it, or that my faith wasn’t really true but that it was an important façade to maintain. What I’ve realized instead that the more I ask hard questions, I am more fascinated by God and the person of Yeshua/Jesus, not less (although a lot of my opinions and theology has changed).
In taking a new look at the Gospels after having taken a break from the whole read-your-Bible every-day-but-don’t-actually-think-about-it mentality that I had fallen into, I’m realizing that Yeshua seemed to really like it when people asked questions. Some questions that were trying to entrap him or that were purely fear based he seemed to like less, but at least they still revealed where the person was at so that he could address their fear or hatred towards him. But with most questions, he was really ready to engage with whatever it was that people were wondering, and usually answered either with another question or with a story, which then invited more questions.
One of the most famous questions that someone asked Yeshua is the one I’ve been thinking about in light of the recent shooting in Orlando. It fits with most of what’s been going on in the world for the last 2,000 years, really, just as it fit with what was going on when Yeshua was walking the earth.
The story goes: There was this man who was trying to figure out how to live right, and he asked Yeshua how to do so. Yeshua answered his question with another: he asked the man what he thought the answer was. The man responded by saying that he thought he should love God and love his neighbor, which Yeshua said was, indeed, the case. But then, after the man asked his first question and was asked a second question, we get to the heart of the matter. The man asks Yeshua yet another question, the one that had really been troubling him (and one that’s been troubling me): Who is my neighbor?
I’m not going to rehash the rest of this story or Yeshua’s response, because it’s a story that’s been rehashed a lot in various Christian circles. (If the story is new to you, you can look up Luke 10 in a Bible or online). What I want instead is to sit with the question for a minute, and think about how the question might be framed in light of current ethnic, political, and social divisions.
I think it’s safe to say that all of us have people that we wouldn’t particularly want to be our next-door neighbors. Most of us don’t want someone to be our neighbor if they are violent to us or our families. Most of us wouldn’t want neighbors who take our stuff without asking. Most of us don’t want neighbors who get frequent visits by the mob. Most of us don’t want neighbors who let trash pile up around there house until the rats and cockroaches start crawling over to ours. And on a lighter (but still annoying) note: most of us don’t want neighbors who play our least favorite kinds of music loudly enough for us to hear while we were trying to sleep, and keep doing it after we nicely ask them to stop.
But what does it mean when we don’t want neighbors who remind us that not everyone has the same culture as us?
Or to ask more pointedly, what does it mean when we don’t want neighbors who come from a different country or speak a different language? What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose sexual orientation, gender identity, or sexual expression is different than our own? What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose faith system is one with which we are not very familiar, and who might want to worship in our neighborhood? What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose families look different than ours? What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose socioeconomic status is unlike ours or whose skin tone is dissimilar to ours? What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors whose political affiliations or stances are different than ours? What does it mean when we don’t want neighbors for whom cop surveillance is normal, even if they are completely law-abiding? What does it mean to not want neighbors who came to our neighborhood to escape violence? I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I think if we really ask ourselves those questions, we will come to some self-reveling answers. Hypothetically speaking, I might discover that I don’t want a Muslim person in my neighborhood because I really know very little about what Islam stands for or is about outside of what the news channel of my choice says, and the news says that Muslim people are inherently violent. Or I might discover that I don’t want someone who is gay in my neighborhood, because I really have no idea how to talk to my children about sexual orientation. Or I might discover that I don’t want people of certain ethnicities or lower socioeconomic statuses moving into my neighborhood because I don’t want my property value to go down. Or, on the other hand, I might discover that I don’t want someone who I identify as wealthy in my neighborhood, because I just assume that they are unkind to the poor and selfish. And, if we let them, these realizations can all be opportunities for growth. We could use them to learn about other cultures and faiths, learn to have conversations about challenging topics, learn to value marginalized people over personal gain, and learn not to judge someone before we actually know them (or learn not to judge at all).
And in saying this, and in sitting with this question of “who is my neighbor?”, I want to learn to love my neighbors better. I want to learn to love my Muslim neighbors, my atheist neighbors, my queer neighbors, my refugee neighbors, my right-wing neighbors, my homeless neighbors, my wealthy neighbors, my gang member neighbors, and my police officer neighbors (to name a few) better.
I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet, though, to be honest. So, I’ve compiled a list of what I would consider to be modern-day good Samaritan stories, i.e. stories that feature an unexpected (at least to some) protagonist showing what it means to love their neighbors. First are stories featuring protagonists that it seems like many people in our society don’t want to be their neighbors, and then are stories featuring protagonists that I often have a hard time with when they are my neighbors. If you don’t have time to read them all, I encourage you to find a story of someone you would have a hard time having as your neighbor, and let them be the Good Samaritan in your story.
A Muslim teenager risks her life in order to stand up for her fellow female students
A gay man adopts a son from foster care, becoming a single dad
An Iraqi immigrant fights for the residents of Flint to have clean water
A recovered crack addict becomes the Nashvillian of the year
A black teenager chases a kidnapper on his bike and saves a little girl
Undocumented workers volunteer to help victims of Hurricane Sandy
A former welfare mom becomes a teacher, then a principal and an author
Afghani villagers their risk lives to save the life of a Navy Seal
A homeless man returns a purse with hundreds of dollars to a mom struggling with cancer
A Catholic priest founds an organization to empower former gang members
A transgender person works as the executive director of a ministry to the chronically homeless, directed a community garden for those in poverty, and shares the love of God as a pastor
A senator donates his salary to a food bank during shutdown
A doctor risks safety to provide abortions out of a sense of calling to women in need
A Megachurch pastor gives away money, leaves church to learn from house churches in China
A lawyer leaves her home to be a guardian for refugee kids
A wealthy businessman gives away all of his money to charities
A Wall street analyst quits job to open a pizzeria and feeds the homeless
A US Soldier gives his life in saving Afghani girl
A single police officer teaches inner city kids boxing, and adopts two of his students from foster care
A professional baseball player lives in a van under the poverty line and cares for environment
I encourage you to ask questions. Of your neighbors (when you do it respectfully), of God, and of yourself. It’s been a good process for me thus far, and I hope to write more about it soon.
Grace, peace, & shalom,