There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, (Galatians 3:28)
This teaching of Jesus that was central to his life and work, was not only revolutionary in His day, but continues to form the core of the work for social justice by Christians and non-Christians today.
The idea that we are all created equal children of God, and must treat each other as friends and neighbors, regardless of personal endowments or social situation, lies at the heart of what we say we stand for as followers of Jesus. Just as the New Testament teaches us that God created all of us as his children, so did the Old Testament teach us that God created us to be stewards (Genesis 2:15) of His Kingdom – not only the land, but all resources AND all living things that live upon the earth.
This means all people of the earth! It means all of us: Ourselves, our families, our friends, those we do not yet know, those who we will meet in the future, and those who are our enemies or want to do us harm.
Yet now we seem to be, increasingly, a nation and a world divided. After 75 years of working to build one world through peaceful liaisons, disarmament and sharing of resources, once again we see a rapid push towards nationalism and regional sectarianism. Many people are turning their backs on their neighbors and wishing to build a cocoon to ensure that those who are different are shut out, demonized, marginalized, and in some cases, criminalized.
Regardless of the reasons for this drift to isolationism – be they religious beliefs, geographical separation, social mores, elitism, racism or prejudice, they all stem from fear. There is a tendency to define some people as ‘others’ – ones to be avoided, excluded, demonized and denigrated. Whether because of personal fear or cultural upbringing, each group feels the right to protect their world and their future by doing everything in their power to ensure that no one who is not ‘one of them’ thrives in their world. In some cases, laws are written to exclude ‘those people’ from the basic rights all people should enjoy.
But God did not put us on this earth to build societies that segregate and alienate. Scripture tells us:
“let us love one another, for love comes from God.” (1 John 4:7)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)
The topic of this edition of Connections centers on neighbors. But what is a neighbor? Does it mean only those that live on the block we do, or go to our church, or are members of our social clubs, or as in the Old Testament, all Israelites, no matter where they lived? In the New Testament, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus expanded neighbor to be those who were enemies or considered ‘unclean’.
This is made clear in Matthew 5:44-45: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
There was no distinction between the righteous (Hebrews) and anyone else (unrighteous) living on the earth. The second Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) expanded the definition of neighbor to the whole world.
Our planet is shrinking. With 24-hour news service and the Internet we can immediately see the needs of other people around the world as if they were right next-door. With faster modes of travel, we can reach far off places in hours, not days. Whether we like it or not, everyone is our neighbor.
If we are to follow Jesus’ teaching about our neighbors, it is incumbent upon us to expand our vocabulary from ‘us and them’ to ‘we’. We are all in this together; whatever affects someone in Somalia, Afghanistan or Orlando, affects each one of us. If there is injustice anywhere in the world, sooner or later we are all affected by it. We have been given a Biblical imperative to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Notice that it says your God, not our God. One of the great dividers is the concept that Christianity is the only true religion and all others are false. We must remember that we all worship the same God, no matter what name we give him . . . and that we are all children of that same Creator. Therefore, it is commanded that we do justice for all people.
The real and imagined walls we seek to build to keep the other out must be dismantled – brick-by-brick, lie-by-lie, prejudice-by-prejudice. And when injustice exists, we must speak out in love, not in violence. We must be persistent and unflagging in working for justice for all or there can be justice for none. To remain silent, to say, “this is not my business,” is to aid and support forces of evil in our neighborhoods and our world. We have become so accustomed to daily shootings and violence that we hardly take note of it, or simply say ‘there’s another one’. We hide in our living rooms watching 24-hour news and observe ‘what a shame’ or, ‘at least we don’t have that here,’ or have no reaction at all. To quote a recent protest poster: Silence = Violence.
If we are willing to accept God’s mercy, we must show that mercy to others. We must welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the suffering and defend the weak (Matthew 25:42-46). All of these people are our neighbors.
It is time for us to come out of our safe, secure homes and go into the world, living into the commandments and teaching of Jesus to live among and care for our neighbors. They are not so different from us, and when we get to know them, and eat with them, we will be able to build a better world for everyone. But first, like the Good Samaritan, we must cross the road.
To quote Henri Nouwen: “We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics.
There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.”
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The Rev. Deniray Mueller serves as the legislative liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio and convener of the Social Justice & Public Policy Commission. Contact Deniray at email@example.com.