In his prophetic book The Secular City (Macmillan Company; New York: 1965) liberal Harvard Divinity School professor and theologian Harvey Cox predicted that the city of the future would be characterized by anonymity and mobility. As a seminary student years ago, my strongly conservative worldview and high view of Scripture found little resonance with Cox’s radical agenda, theological or social. His depiction of life in the new millennium we’re living in right now, however, is pretty accurate. Look around. Take note. It’s a world of strangers on the move. Being a biblical neighbor in a mobile, anonymous world could be one of our greatest challenges.
There’s irony in these contrasts. Technology and the advent of social media has created a nearness never before imagined by the human species. Followers and friends are a click away as we’ve mastered the mechanics of gaming, communicating, and being up-close-and-personal through threads, groups, likes, loves, shares, emojis, private messaging, and Face Time calls. At the same time these innovations have given us enhanced metrics of distance, the new skills of ignoring, unfollowing, unfriending, exiting conversations, hitting the mute button, or hiding friends or comments. Apps like Cloak and Hell is Other People are downloads in the new and growing anti-social movement. The truth is we’re closer than ever before. No, we’re more distant than ever before. The answer may actually be the new cultural shrug of indifference—‘whatever”.
A group of ministry friends and I were discussing Christ’s teaching on being neighbors over a cup of coffee one day. We recounted the time a first century lawyer asked Jesus a simple enough question: “who is my neighbor?” (see Luke 10:25-27, The Parable of the Good Samaritan). We batted this thing around for a while because being a neighbor in this anonymous, mobile world is a challenge. We decided, based on our assessment of Scripture, everyone is my neighbor. Most of us would agree there’s really nothing new here. That’s been the bottom line in our conclusions about being neighbors for two millennia. At the same time, with contemporary culture as our point of reference, we’ve allowed the truth that no one is my neighbor to predominate mission, both personally and in the church. We’re closer than ever before but also farther apart. Most of us just don’t want to get tangled with all the weirdness out there.
Identifying my neighbor isn’t the critical issue anyway. Luke concluded that the lawyer who questioned Jesus did so out of a self-justifying motive. He obviously wanted to feel better about himself since his legal standard was to love his neighbor as he loved himself. But, establishing fine lines of who is and who isn’t my neighbor misses the broad intent of New Testament teaching about our relationship with others. My neighbors are the others in my circle of influence. All of them. Scripture reminds us—
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16, ESV
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. Matthew 6:14, ESV
And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. Luke 6:31, ESV
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4, ESV
There’s a language quibble in this thing about neighbors too. In my personal opinion the many references about our recognition and treatment of “others” applies to those people outside our relationships within the Christian community. That’s not to suggest that there’s no Scriptural guide for our treatment of fellow believers. These are certainly addressed on the “one another” passages of the New Testament, as many as fifty-two of them. The many Scriptures about “others”, in my limited opinion, gives us relational guidelines for those neighbors beyond the context of the local church.
The truth is, everyone is my neighbor. You know, the maniac in the next lane on the commute every morning; the person writing a check in the long line at the discount store; the felon who lives down the street; the guy with the noisy motorcycle who leaves for work at 5:00 a.m. every morning; the Muslim immigrants who moved into the complex around the corner; and all the other people who occupy so many anonymous slots in this mobile and anonymous world, the near/far social media world as well.
Forgive my almost cynical appraisal of neighborliness in this broken world. Recent headlines have been in your face truth about the contemporary complications of being neighbors. The many distinctions that separate the human species have become fuses to an explosive diversity of attitudes, prejudices, biases, and opinions. Being a neighbor in such potentially violent times may be the greatest challenge of the believing community. I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians—
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. Philippians 2: 14-15, ESV
Of course, the root of this whole thing, for egocentric humans, is the first step of following Christ. Jesus said it clearly—
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Luke 9:23, ESV
Self denial is the entry point to this neighborhood. And, we’ll always have trouble with the biblical ideals for neighborliness until we get that part settled.
Hey, it’s Manic Heights. Welcome to the Neighborhood.
Author’s note: The title Manic Heights, Welcome to the Neighborhood was borrowed from the blog site originated and authored by our son, Brian Eliot Holmes before his death July 18, 2011. His blogs were about Christian living in this very broken world.