It was one of the last nights on the service learning trip to West Virginia, and we were huddled around a campfire. There were a million stars above, and we were talking about the week.
One thing stuck out to me in particular. Nick, one of the people for whom we were building the house, told us that people in his town were less likely to help their neighbors than they once were. He said it was because people think those in need are lazy or undeserving. He told us how glad he was that we came, and that it meant a lot. He told us we were awesome.
I think we were all feeling pretty good about how awesome we were, too, what with giving up a week of our precious summer to come build a house. We’re the best, I thought to myself. Go us.
And then I thought about his words awhile longer and realized the very words that complimented us also indicted us. We were more willing to drive 6 hours away to help someone than we were to drive 16 minutes down the road, where thousands are in need of help every day. It made me wonder.
Who is my neighbor?
I was scrolling through Facebook after the election. Not a great idea, in hindsight. To be honest, Facebook wasn’t bringing out the best in people.
One person posted a giant map of the United States. The East and West Coast, Hillary territory, was labeled “America.” The whole middle of the country, the red states, was labeled Dumb”f word” istan, implying that it was, in fact, not America, but another country full of idiots. Dumb-f- istan.
Who is my neighbor?
I scrolled down my news feed. Another person’s post was about Black Lives Matter and “PC culture.” They said that if people just listened to the police, there wouldn’t be any trouble. They went on to imply that the struggles minorities face were largely a figment of their imagination, and that those crying out for injustice were a bunch of “snowflake crybabies”.
Who is my neighbor?
In a time when our country feels more divided than ever, in a time when people are described as the incarnation of evil or the epitome of goodness, I think this question, “Who is my neighbor?” is at the front of our minds. Who is my neighbor? What do I owe them?
Or, perhaps we might frame it another way; “Who are these neighbors of mine? I don’t recognize them. I don’t know them. I don’t understand how they could possibly do this or support this (whatever this is). Who is my neighbor?”
The question has been around for a long, long time.
Luke 10: You have probably heard it before… the Good Samaritan is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. A man asks Jesus, what he can do to really live. Jesus responds with the greatest commandment- to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. The man replies, sure. But could you specify who my neighbor is? Who, particularly, are we talking about? He wants to check the right boxes, to dot his I’s and cross his T’s.
So Jesus tells him a story about a guy getting robbed and beaten up and left for half dead. The good Samaritan comes to the rescue after all the priests and chaplains and supposedly religious people leave him. Jesus asks, Who was a neighbor, here?
As you know, it’s the Samaritan.
What you might not know is that the Samaritan was supposed to be the enemy. The Samaritan should have been the least likely guy to help out in this story. The Samaritans and Jews had a conflict going back hundreds of years. The Samaritans were outsiders. They were a different ethnicity and worshipped God in a different way. They hated each other’s guts. And yet that guy, the one who was supposed to be hated, is the one who helps.
The Samaritan, the guy he really doesn’t like, the OTHER guy, the one across the aisle, across the divide, becomes the exemplar. As one scholar writes about this passage, “The lawyer is pushed to learn about genuine love from… his enemy. To be committed to love of neighbor involves a willingness to see an enemy as a benefactor, one who can offer instruction about true compassion and righteousness.”
According to Jesus, it is the very people that we can least stand to be around that we most need to engage. It is the ones who we don’t consider our neighbors that we most need to meet.
I am more convinced now than ever that giving of ourselves to those who are different from us is the only way forward.
The members of our Service Learning Society know it. They have shown what it means to be a neighbor. Through Bridges, through camps, through faith organizations, through sports, through Scouts…. they have shown time and time again that when you break down barriers and encounter those different from you, everyone walks away better.
When you serve with the Way Home, you don’t see the incarcerated the same way. When you serve with Athletes Serving Athletes, you don’t see the handicapped in the same way.
In Genesis, we are told that humanity is created in God’s image. The image of God, or the Imago Dei, as it is called, is the spark of God that is in each of us.
And we are called to recognize it and cherish it in each other- even in those we do not agree with or do not like or straight up think are stupid and awful. Even those people– we are to see the Imago Dei in them.
When we surround ourselves with viewpoints that are entirely like our own, we do ourselves and the world an incredible disservice. The echo chambers of our social media and friend groups make us think that our perception of the world IS reality. What a pompous viewpoint.
If you can find no compassion or understanding for a Trump supporter, perhaps the best way towards understanding is to serve alongside someone in the rust belt or rural America who feel they’ve been left behind. See what they can teach you. In being their neighbor, in truly trying to care for them, you will see the Imago Dei in them. And they in you.
And if you can find no compassion or understanding for the immigrant, or those who feel like they should take a knee during the national anthem, I submit that you should spend time serving alongside and getting to know these people and their stories. See what they have to teach you. You will see the Imago Dei is in them, and they, in you.
Here’s the deal: If you serve alongside those who you think are absolutely wrong and awful and terrible, and honestly give it a good shot, and then still hate their guts at the end of the day, well, at least you can feel self-righteous about it.
Might as well test the hypothesis firsthand rather than dabbling in speculation. Then you can come tell Chaplain Sell I told you so. But I doubt that will happen.
Common humanity shines through when we get to know each other. It is hard to demonize those we have served. It is hard not to find compassion for those who have given a part of their lives to us.
I don’t mean to imply that we have to all sit around the campfire and sing kumbaya together. And I don’t mean that there isn’t such a thing as right and wrong or a time to speak up for your beliefs. There is.
But “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” And the way of faith demands that we serve those who are different from us, to break down barriers, not through dominance, but through love.
The man in the parable will never think of the Samaritan in the same way again.
The next time one of his friends tells him a joke in the locker room about how stupid Samaritans are, I’m betting that he won’t go along with it. He can’t. Because he doesn’t see Samaritans that way anymore.
I’m betting he’ll say,
“No. There was a time when my enemy became the very one who gave me life. The one who I once made fun of, the one who I once abhorred, took care of me. Though the world said we were to hate each other, he showed me love. He was a neighbor to me. And I’ll be a neighbor to him.”
Jesus said, “Go, and do likewise.”
 Matthew L. Skinner, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. (Westminster John Knox: Bartlett and Brown Taylor, ed. 2010).