Growing up in Oklahoma, we’d spend time at my Grandma and Grandmother’s houses in a tiny town with nothing to do. So we gathered. We played in the yard and we visited the neighbors, we ate dinner together and we picked pecans from the trees as they fell.
But we’ve gotten older and entered into an increasingly virtual world that doesn’t care if we are sitting on a porch in a town with nothing to speak of. Now the world meets us wherever we are. On one hand, that’s praiseworthy: we have the incredible opportunity to become global neighbors to people from all nations. And yet, we have a hard time connecting to those already living where we are, the people we see every single day. We’ve lost sense of what it traditionally means to be a neighbor.
Belonging to One Another
Human beings are especially gifted at repressing feelings, blaming others, and living on the surface of a deeper kind of existence. We have coping mechanisms to maintain distance; we spew hateful words at each other because we seem to think that keeping our distance keeps us safe.
But it simply isn’t true.
Last semester I took part in a racial reconciliation group through my church called Be the Bridge. After a few weeks of conversations on hard topics like how to tackle racism in the church, we kept coming back around to the reality that social media has been both a blessing and a curse for America and the church in 2018.
The natural inclination to spend time in real spaces with people, face to face, has faded. Instead, we are working around one another in digital circles, often getting fulfillment from our own echo chambers and fully criticizing anyone who doesn’t belong to them. It has transformed the way we view the world, because we aren’t gathering around our tables or sitting on our front porches like we used to.
We still have these spoken and unspoken ways of interacting with each other. Phrases like “love your neighbor as yourself,” and the idea of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.” But what about the often unspoken rules of mindfulness and presence when we are with one another, both with those we fully support and those we despise?
We remember our phrases but we have forgotten the concept of neighborhood, as in, belonging to one another. A word that requires relationship. A concept about seeing one another. A place of intergenerational contact.
My six-year-old son takes flowers from our yard to a widow who lives two doors down from us. Her husband died two years ago, right around Thanksgiving, and so, despite the worry that we might be imposing, we check in with her every now and then. Eliot takes a little bouquet to her door, and she gives him French chocolates to share with his little brother Isaiah. We don’t see our neighbor first as a Democrat or a Republican. We don’t wonder what she believes about this or that. We are inclined to see her humanity. We see her experience. We sit in her world, even for just a moment, and remember that in that space, we are called to care for one another—neighborhood.
Bound to Love
If we want to model the love of neighbor work that is required of us as Christians, we need to do it by connecting soul to soul with others. It requires humility, empathy, and listening. Sometimes it requires flowers. It will certainly require us to extend ourselves outside our echo chambers, outside our circles. We’ve got to take a break from talking politics and religion and talk stories and experiences so that we understand one another.
I recently listened to with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast where she recently interviewed former white supremacist Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson. Matthew, an orthodox Jew, befriended Derek when many turned on him after he’d been outed as a white supremacist at their college. Matthew simply invited Derek to gather at his home for Shabbat every Friday night, and told his other friends not to bring up the obvious elephant in the room. Instead, they got to know each other as humans, as people, slowly breaking down walls and barriers to reconciliation and making their way toward true shalom.
How is it that a white nationalist and an orthodox Jew can become good friends? Because they recognized that they are part of the work of neighboring.
Matthew recognized that there is more to the human existence, that our stories keep evolving and that it must involving relationship, and often, food.
“I was legitimately friends with Derek, even when I didn’t know exactly where he stood.”
It doesn’t mean that everything is agreed upon, but that there are things to work through, disagreements to process. It’s exactly the opposite work of creating and maintaining echo chambers, and it’s healthy.
We are bound by love to neighborhood. Beyond brotherhood and sisterhood, we are called to this idea of creating healthy neighbor relationships, the call Jesus constantly gives us through the work of the Spirit. When we begin to see this in our face to face experiences, and when it bleeds into our virtual experiences, we’ll begin to create a new world of neighbor-love in which those we are for and those we are against are those we can say we belong to.
Cover image by Emma Frances Logan.