Monday, July 15, 2002

Community: The Universe is Your Neighbor

"Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him,"What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:25ff)

Three days ago our new granddaughter was born in Austin and our son-in-law called and said, "You can see pictures of the baby on the internet." Wow!! I can't go to Austin for a week and already this new baby is on the world wide web and I can go on-line to see her!! This is so incredibly amazing I am overcome with happiness. The whole world is as close as my Macintosh.

My grandfather built crystal set radios. That was an amazing technology in rural North Texas early in the 1900's when indoor plumbing and electricity still were a dream for most farm families. Neighbors would come to visit and sit and listen in amazement to these primitive transmissions from far away. My family had the second phone in the county. The only place to call was the general store which had the other one and they would call each other several times a day to pass on the news and chat. The telephone, radio and television turned our world into a global village. When the Mars expedition landed, we sat at our computer and downloaded pictures of the Martian landscape at the same time they were being transmitted to NASA. Mass communication has brought the whole universe into our living rooms and changed forever our concept of who is our neighbor.

Human community is made possible by communication and the understanding of our need to care for one another in order to survive. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:25-37) people had a limited concept of neighbor. My neighbor was my clan, others in my village, perhaps my religious group, my racial or national group at most. The man in the ditch who had been set upon by thieves in the parable was Jewish, but he was ignored in his distress by members of his own community who had more pressing affairs to attend to that prevented them from stopping to help him. This was a shocking story to Jesus' audience. The Samaritan who stopped to help would not have been considered a neighbor by those who hurried past, but a reviled foreigner whose religious practices were disapproved. If the story were updated in today's situation, the man in the ditch might have been a Jew, and the one who stopped to help a Palestinian, or the other way around. Jesus expanded the concept of neighbor beyond the acceptable boundaries of the day to include anyone in one's pathway and anyone who showed compassion.

Television and the internet have made it impossible for any of us to live any longer in isolation or ignore the needs, agendas and miseries of the world. When the centennial celebrations were held around the world at midnight, January 1, 2000, we were able to follow the festivities in simultaneous broadcasts via satellites. Those same satellite transmissions also bring us heartrending pictures of children and adult civilians in a Kurdish village killed by poison gas. I see those lifeless little bodies and I see my own grandbabies lying there and I weep for the whole human race.

A good part of the anxiety and cynicism of our times is due to the fact that we are overwhelmed by the sheer multitude and complexity of the world's problems that defy understanding and seem intractable. We are aware of the need, but the magnitude of the problems, our geographical distance and lack of organizational capacity to address the situation leave us feeling frustrated and isolated in our distress. We have enough problems of our own never mind trying to deal with the problems of people across town, let alone half way around the world.

But if we are unable to find solutions, we CAN enter the process. Every problem on any scale begins with an individual decision not to be a neighbor. Multitudes of such decisions by multitudes of people over extended periods of time result in the crises and miseries of the world. If each problem begins with an individual decision, multiplied many times, the solutions also begin with an individual decision, multiplied many times. Finding solutions may be no more complex than a simple individual decision as this.

Begin with yourself and commit yourself to a once for all decision that you, at any rate, will try to understand everything of every other person, rather than try to make others understand you.

Simple to say, not simple to do, but an important first start. Spiritual discipline begins with this kind of commitment. It doesn't matter if we don't understand how such a commitment will work, but as time passes and each day this same decision is consciously made by a single individual, over and over again in multitudes of different situations, eventually a different kind of consciousness evolves and a different understanding is reached about the nature of the world and it's inhabitants, about people and their problems, about forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a decision that says, "This problem has a long and complex history and I may never understand all its ramifications. But this day I personally make a decision that the problem stops here, with me, and I, for my own part, will not participate in the continuation of this problem. Instead of seeking to justify myself and having my own point of view understood and accepted, I am going to do my part by doing everything in my power to listen, understand and promote an atmosphere of reconciliation. This is a decision I make this day with no expectation of outcome."

After a bitter quarrel, some resentment must remain.
What can one do about it?
Therefore the sage keeps his half of the bargain
But does not exact his due.
A man of Virtue performs his part,
But a man without Virtue requires others
to fulfill their obligations.
(Tao Te Ching. 79)