I’m confident there’s something greater than us out there. Not a deity that directs our daily lives: that abdicates our individual responsibility. Nor something fashioned in our own image and likeness: that’s simply a narcissistic failure of imagination. I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of god. But so am I. And so are you. And so, from a religious perspective, I’m no Christian.
Yet I am culturally Christian. Steeped in its fundamental moral and ethical traditions. The Bible. The parables. The ten commandments. I don’t adhere to every fable: the celebration of the prodigal son at the expense of the steadfast one is simply appalling. Yet my moral compass points New Testament north. Less Hammurabi’s eye for an eye. More Gospel Matthew, bent toward forgiveness.
One cornerstone of cultural Christianity is, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I suppose in Palestine circa AD Zero, your neighbor was pretty easy to identify. The extents to which anyone walked was limited; everyone you met was your neighbor and it behooved you to treat them well. You had zilch influence on anyone beyond your immediate geography. They were out of scope.
The first part of the definition for ‘neighbor’ still holds. The people who live in my immediate proximity, who walk the same sidewalks and attend the same schools are certainly my neighbors. Beyond that, the definition gets muddy.
A typical blog post, authored by The Awkward Poser or pretty much anyone else, follows a predictable trajectory. A personal vignette illustrates a social condition, problem, or opportunity. Sprinkle in a bit of irony, a dose of humor, and resolve with refreshing insight. Keep it light, but not trite, in under 1000 words
This post does not follow that trajectory because, in truth, I have no idea where to draw the boundaries that define who is my neighbor. I am simply going to listicle the gradations as I understand them.
My neighbor is:
- A person who occupies my immediate geographical and social sphere. Which, in my domain means they may not be white, but they are well-educated and affluent.
- A person who occupies my immediate geography but not my social sphere. There is a housing project four blocks from my house. I hardly interact with anyone who lives there.
- A person who lives in the city of Cambridge. Cambridge is only six square miles, but it includes over a hundred thousand people. How could I possibly love them all as myself?
- Every person who shares my political and social views. Is being a neighbor allowed to be easy?
- Everyone, regardless of their political and social views. That makes being a neighbor incredibly hard. How can we possibly love someone as ourself who is diametrically opposite ourselves? Even if we could love them, we’d have to love them in some other way.
- Every citizen of the United States. Aren’t we supposed to hold much in common?
- Every other person in the United States. The undocumented occupy the same space, right?
- Every person who wants to get into the United States. Is it our duty to share what is good and bad about the US of A with anyone, simply because they want to come in? If they are our neighbors and we are Biblically inclined, then we must.
- Every virtual person we encounter on the internet. Many are real; their entreaties and GoFundMe’s are sincere. But many are trolls or bots. Do neighbors have to be human?
- Every creature we influence on this earth. The birds, the bees, the pandas, the spotted owls. They are our neighbors in a geographic sense. But if I exert myself to their preservation, it is often at the expense of some other creature.
Thus, twenty centuries on, the Biblical imperative to love they neighbor as thyself is, at a minimum: exhausting; in reality: futile. There are too many of us making too competing demands. Call me callous, but I simply cannot care as much about an ill person who lives in Southeast Asia as I can about the man who lives down the street. At least I can bring my immediate neighbor a casserole or accompany him to the doctor. I can’t offer anything so tangible, so direct, to the person on the far side of the globe.
And yet, I cannot draw a line through my list and announce those above as my neighbors, those below outside my consideration. My moral compass wants to include everyone I encounter under the umbrella as my neighbor. The sheer number of encounters that bombard us in the twenty-first century tramples on that Biblical ideal.