Every major faith tradition teaches its members to love their neighbor, and in my own faith (Christianity) the rule to love our neighbor is one of the two great commandments. Stuck at home in front of the TV for the last few months three things have led me to rethink this basic command and wonder what we need to do to practice neighbor love in the time of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the unfolding Climate Crisis.
First, with the economic shutdowns and social distancing I was suddenly isolated from family, friends, and neighbors I usually interact with, and cut off from colleagues and acquaintances I run into regularly at work, school, church, stores, restaurants, bars and movies. In this new reality a gulf opened between myself and my normal neighbors.
At the same time, I found myself consuming a lot of news, bringing me face to face with strangers suffering from COVID-19, the shutdown, and police brutality. Instead of spending time with my normal neighbors, news coverage was spotlighting a lot of other people I often overlook or ignore – people in other neighborhoods and zip codes, in nursing homes, prisons, meat packing plants, and faraway cities and nations. Coverage of the Climate Crisis has been trying to bring people like this to my attention for years, but the sudden social vacuum created by social distancing and the shutdowns had me paying attention to my unrecognized neighbors in new and powerful ways. Videos of refrigerator trucks filled with corpses and the endless loop of George Floyd’s murder were getting through my normal defenses in new ways.
And these news stories and analyses of the virus and the Black Lives Matter movement were all making one thing perfectly clear – we are not all in this together. In this country we have long been segregated into separate and unequal worlds by political, economic and cultural practices baked into the bones of our society. In these separate neighborhoods and zip codes, segregated by race and class, we lead very different lives, and – at least for those of us in the better neighborhoods – we do so in willful ignorance and indifference to the plight of those living just miles away.
This belated recognition of our separate and unequal nation led me to reflect on the biblical teaching about neighbor love and white America’s (and my own) continued failure to obey that divine command.
The most famous Bible story about neighbor love (the Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10) is framed by two questions. At the start a lawyer asks Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” and at the end Jesus asks, “Who proved to be a neighbor to the injured man?” (Or, “What does it take to be a neighbor?”) These are two very important questions, because they uncover the radical nature of the biblical command to love the neighbor and expose the narrow and tepid nature of our usual grasp of neighbor love.
In a society riddled with individualism and racism we have long narrowed our grasp of “neighbor” to the nearby and the likeminded. Our neighbors consist of those in my neighborhood, local church, school board, corner bar or restaurant. When factoring in the long-term impacts of segregation, redlining, zoning and gerrymandering, and the more recent consequences of cable news and social media, that effectively reduces my notion of a neighbor to people who look and think like me and have the same basic experiences of life.
Inside this anemic version of neighbor what passes for neighbor love includes sharing casseroles or cookies with those on our cul-de-sac or (if we think about being good neighbors in larger society) tolerating people who are different from us and teaching our children to do the same. Good neighbors bring baked goods and aren’t bigots. But they don’t organize, protest, speak out, or call for shutting down the oil companies or defunding the police. Radicals, prophets, martyrs, agitators may do these sorts of things, but not neighbors.
The Biblical grasp of neighbor love is an earthquake shattering our normal understanding of neighborliness. In the Bible the neighbor we must love is a stranger, outcast and alien, trying to survive in a dangerous and radically unjust world. Far from the likeminded lookalike living next door, the Bible’s neighbor is the landless foreigner, unemployed stranger, cheated widow, and abandoned orphan. The Bible’s neighbor is the outsider whose life does not matter to the rest of us, who is not our cousin, fellow believer, colleague or teammate. This neighbor lives beyond our walls, is cheated in our courts, workplaces, and markets, and has been left landless, homeless, jobless, hungry and beaten by the side of the road.
And in the Bible the suffering and needs of this neighbor have been created by structural injustices that treat the foreigner worse than the native, rob the poor at every turn, and are baked into the political, economic and religious structures of the day. So neighbor love in the Bible is much more than bringing casseroles to folks next door. Biblical neighbor love commands us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, and (and this is critical) to not just to do it voluntarily as individuals – but to name, confess and dismantle the structures that are cheating, robbing and oppressing these neighbors and replace these structures with reforms that ensure justice in our courts, workplace, markets and farms. Biblical practices like Jubilee, Sabbatical Year, Sabbath, Gleaning, Sanctuary for Slaves, and Tithes for aliens, widows and orphans were meant to address and replace structural injustices that robbed, starved and killed neighbors in plain sight.
So, what does the command to neighbor love mean in the time of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the unfolding Climate Crisis? All three of these shine a light on structural injustices segregating us into separate and unequal neighborhoods, zip codes, and nations. They have uncovered the fact that it is no accident African Americans are getting sick and dying of COVID-19 in higher numbers and encountering more police violence than whites, that people of color and immigrants have been hurt far worse by the economic shutdown and its reopening, or that poor and minority neighborhoods suffer much more from environmental pollution – just as poor nations are more threatened by the Climate Crisis than the wealthy countries burning most of our carbon. The harms being visited upon our forgotten and ignored neighbors are the result of unjust economic, political and cultural structures – and the only way to love these neighbors is to confess, reform and dismantle these structures.
The Biblical command to love our neighbor first demands we recognize as neighbors those we have seen as strangers and treated as outcasts – that we see them as “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.” Neighbor love in the Bible is solidarity with the alien, widow and orphan, and this love demands acknowledging, repenting and dismantling the unjust structures which have divided us by race, class, gender and orientation. This means that neighbor love in the time of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Climate Crisis requires uncovering, confessing and tearing down the unjust structures that privilege some of us and harm, sicken and kill our neighbors. Structural reform is the biblical command here. We cannot prove ourselves to be neighbors in any other way.
So, to paraphrase Jesus’ question to the lawyer in Luke 10, “How can we prove to be a neighbor in the time of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the unfolding Climate Crisis?” Here’s an answer: work with others to uncover, confess and dismantle unjust structures by electing new leaders, writing new laws, creating new opportunities. Investigate. Advocate. Organize. Protest. Campaign. Vote. Repeat.