Room At the Table: Who Is My Neighbor?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Maybe you’ve seen this sign. Or, maybe you’ve heard about it. In an age of ever-increasing political decisiveness, it’s nice to see these signs dotted along the streets in which I work and the locations in which I visit.

But (and really – you knew the but was coming) I can’t help but notice the distressing trend between the physical location of the signs and the socioeconomic status and racial demographics of the neighborhoods.

The places I generally see these signs are in the following places and spaces:

  • Affluent white Mennonite communities
  • Affluent white hipster neighborhoods 
  • White, liberal, suburbia
  • Liberal “ally-oriented” community centers
  • In that one bookish professor’s office. You know- the one that hands back papers with coffee stains on them and smells like, what he affectionately calls, herbal awakening, but you know it’s really just pot
  • At that one person’s house that you really can’t stand because he really is a racist asshole, but he’s got that sign so…you just nod at him glibly and hope he never actually becomes your physical neighbor
Okay, you’re probably thinking – “okay, yeah…but those are just the places that you’ve seen.”  And, you’re right. I haven’t seen everything and I’m not infallible. Originating from Harrisonburg, VA by Matthew Bucher, the pastor of Immanuel Mennonite Church, this sign was and is a response to the hate-filled rhetoric fueled in the 2016 and 2017 Primary Debates.

And yet, I wonder about the implications. Depending on where you live, posting a sign is easy. Living out the implications of the sign is harder.

In the Bible, Jesus consistently emphasizes the importance of loving ones neighbor, and as I thought about the ubiquity of hateful contemporary public rhetoric, I realized that I needed to revisit what it means to love my neighbor. 
As I struggle with racism and being the target of racist rhetoric, I find myself wondering: what does it mean to love my racist neighbor? 
As churches across denominations struggle to reconcile their interpretations of Christ with LGBTQIA, I find myself wondering: what does it mean to love those whose Christ excludes others?

In the wake of #metoo and #whataboutus, and the ubiquity of rape culture, I wonder what does it means to love persons whom are committed to systems that do not and/or are unwilling to address systems and institutions which victimize and sexualize others? 
Part of my practice in the past month, is learning to address others as my neighbor. For me, words are incredibly powerful and so changing the way in which I think about others fundamentally changes my behavior.

For example, I have found that it is much harder to curse out my neighbor than to curse out a stranger.

Rethinking how I engage with others also requires me to think a lot harder about what I hope to achieve from the situation. When I am centered, I find that my interactions with others remain healthier when I am able to check-in with myself first and allow myself to notice my own body and my own expectations.

  • Am I hoping to prove a point? 
  • Am I hoping to convince the other about the stupidity of his/her/it/their(s) opinion? 
  • Am I hoping to gain more understanding or more compassion? 
  • Am I hoping to listen?

When I allow myself to recenter and consider the other person as a neighbor, I also allow room for transformation to happen.

For me, this process requires intentional commitment towards leaning into relationship with others in respectful dialogue. However, this commitment does, for me, also come with precautions.

  1. Are we both committed towards respectful dialogue?
  2. Are we both safe? It is important to note that being safe is very different than merely being  uncomfortable. Additionally, it is important to note that safety and discomfort hold an implicit hierarchy often associated with racial and economic status(es). What 
  3. What are the supports and/or tools which we need in order to facilitate this conversation?
As a Christ-follower, I believe that Jesus fully equips us to have hard discussions with one another, and that as Christ-followers we can be more than conquerors: we can love our neighbor, we can eat with the stranger, we can clothe the naked, we can love the refugee, we can stand up for the oppressed. But, I wonder what happens when our “can’s” are limited to signs behind white-picket fences in “safe” suburbia. 
  • What if loving our neighbors means laying down our idol of safety?
  • What if loving our neighbors means declaring that no body is illegal?
  • What if loving our neighbors means having that hard conversation about race at a family function?
  • What if loving our neighbors means that Black Lives Matter?
  • What if loving our neighbors means that equity can only happen when those with more, go without so that those without have a little more?
  • What if loving our neighbors means believing sexual violence survivors?
  • What if loving our neighbors means that we stop using plastic?
  • What if loving our neighbors means that our churches are no longer physical locations but people?
  • What if loving our neighbors means losing our fear of death?
In the aftermath of the 2011 Alexandria bombing in Egypt, the BBC reported a story about Christians forming a human chain around a group of praying Muslims in order to protect them from the protest crowds. This story is one in which I don’t think that I will ever forget because it illustrates so well the action-oriented call to consistently love our neighbor. What if loving our neighbors means taking a risk and/or protecting those whom hold different religious views?
What if…fear and safety and mere signs are not our centers?
I want to be clear. This blog post is not hoping damn or point fingers at anyone who may have a sign. Loving and welcoming our neighbors is an integral piece of Christ’s call and it provides a wonderfully hopeful atmosphere. 
However, I hope that this post does perhaps nudge forward a response for us to think further than our sign posts. 
I have recently been attending a church who is exploring the theme: “Things I Wish Jesus Would Have Said.” When I think about loving our neighbors, I think that Jesus not only said a lot but his actions aligned with his faith. Jesus said to love his neighbors so he healed the lepers and fed the hungry and talked with the prostitutes and went into the synagogues and spoke his perfect truth even when faced with death. 
I believe that loving our neighbors requires more than a tweet or a Facebook status or a sign or a blog post. 
I believe that loving our neighbors requires more than a rally or a protest or a moment. 
I believe that loving our neighbors requires more than that one time we talked about racism and it was hard and we had our feelings hurt. 
I believe that loving our neighbors requires more than our own strength. It requires consistent, intentional commitment to do that unconditional love thing, that gritty, leaning in relational thing, that Jesus-thing. 
As I move into love, I am continually amazed by how love continues to move into me. I have more and more capacity to love others. I have more and more capacity to stand centered even when it is hard. I have more and more capacity to hold space for grace in the midst of my own brokenness and imperfections. 
And yet. 
I also have more and more questions. Uncomfortable questions. Questions that you can slap a Sunday school answer onto, but still persist: 
  • What does it mean that Jesus was from the line and lineage of King David, a classic sexual predator and murderer, and that God not only used David, but God loved David fiercely. 
  • What does it mean that Esther is continually glorified when really Vashti was an empowered woman committed to not being sexually violated? 
  • What does it mean when the Church, specifically the Mennonite Church, has a contemporary and historic precedent of not listening or believing survivors?
  • What does it mean when the Church has a history of excluding and oppressing black and brown and LGBTQIA voices?
  • What does it mean when the Church becomes an echo room instead of a diverse body rooted in Christ?
  • What does it mean when safety becomes the Church’s first God?
  • What does it mean if we are called to love radically and transformationally all people? 
  • What would it mean if our signs read: No Matter if you are Conservative or Liberal, we are glad you are our neighbor. 
For me, following the call of Christ requires actions. My mom would tell you this is because I am an action-oriented person and it aligns with my Enneagram. She would probably also notice that each person has been blessed with many different gifts, and not each person will “act” in the same way. 
This is true. (But, my mom isn’t writing this, so you’re just going to get my opinion). 
For me, following Christ means naming and stopping hate speech. Naming and noticing lies. Using my body to gently and nonviolently resist all forms of oppression. Using my voice to speak for those who may not be able to. Using my ears to listen more deeply to those whom are marginalized and using my hands in compassionate and life-giving ways. And, guess what? Asking uncomfortable questions and (hopefully) having enough grace to hear alternate views and corrections. 
What does loving your neighbor look like to you? What, if you are comfortable, questions are you wrestling with? And, if you have a sign – what does it mean to you?
Shalom,
B

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