But what is a neighbour? It’s one of those funny words that mark the difference between England and America. For a start, one of us spells it wrong! But the contrast goes deeper: I remember wondering when I came here what neighbourhoods where. In England we just have districts or places but Americans have neighbourhoods. What are they? Places where neighbours dwell. Interesting! … Another American concept is neighbourliness—to be neighbourly. It’s a word I’d only heard on “The Waltons” until coming to the states—even coming to Berkeley.
Remembering the Waltons begins to put it in perspective for me. Neighbourliness and nostalgia go hand in hand. And what a nostalgic moment we live in. If you disbelieve me check the cinema listings—this morning half the big page ads were for remakes or sequels. Nostalgia for childhood: Dr. Doolittle is back and Zorro is carving his initials again. Even Lethal Weapon, now hitting it’s third sequel, is nostalgic for good old-fashioned buddy-hood and family values—amid the car chases and explosions. And, of course, there’s nostalgia for nostalgia as Gone with the Wind is restored to big-screen glory and makes a bid to restore its southern honour in the wake of Titanic’s new box-office record.
And, more seriously, if you want a meditation on neighbourliness and nostalgia you could do very much worse than Peter Weir’s disturbing film The Truman Show. Do you laugh or do you cry? It’s hard to know but harder to be unmoved.
These days neighbourliness is something more to be remembered than experienced. Soft-focus days of simple goodness, when people greeted each other on the street, sat down as a family for Sunday dinner, felt no fear in leaving their doors unlocked, or borrowing a cup of sugar from next door. When young people had respect. When simpler things were cherished. When people were happy even though poor and dark streets were safe to walk.
When? When was this? Before. Before what? Before distrust. Before drugs. Before gangs and cynicism and betrayal. Before the family collapsed. Before the city crumbled. Before the neighbourhood disappeared. Before people stopped being neighbourly. Before neighbours became strangers.
Even the most jaded should long for what has been lost. For the security, for the surety, for the trust, for the peace.
Who do we blame for their passing? I blame the teachers, the priests, the ones who never speak up any more about real values, who never lay down the law, or hold up a standard of right and wrong. No, I blame the parents, who don’t seem to care, who haven’t instilled any discipline, who’ve let their children do just anything. Heck, I blame the neighbours themselves. Look who they are! All the good ones have left and gone and the in-comers are loud and violent. They don’t know how to be civil. Say anything to them and they’d bite your head off. They’re not like us. Lazy they are. They don’t know our ways. They’re probably not capable of learning, being who they are, you know. Have you smelt the food they eat? What we need is …
Well, what do we need? How do we bring back the neighbour? Where is the law and order to bring back the favour of God, Adonai’s delight and the prosperity of our ancestors? Where do we have to go to find it? WE are ready. We’ll do it—even if it seems a harsh and heavy burden—because by God we need something.
But, says Moses, the law you seek—the pattern, the order—isn’t mysterious and remote. It isn’t up in the sky so that you need someone t fetch it. It isn’t across the sea so that someone must carry it to you. No it is already very near to you—it is already on your lips and in your heart. All you have to do … is do it.
But what makes a neighbourhood? Law, values, and nostalgia don’t. The carriers of the law see the problem but live elsewhere. It is the foreigner with his stinking food who sees and draws near, binds the wound as best he can, lifts up the broken in body to care for them and comes back to keep on caring. Stays until the healing is complete.
But why? Why is the enemy the friend? Why do the friends walk on by? We are back to that word again—compassion. That untranslatable word with a meaning somewhere between pity and anger with it’s literal root in spleen. The evil Samaritan is moved to compassion—literally something convulses his bowels, turns his stomach over—and he is stopped in his tracks. Luke uses the word only three times: when Jesus raises to life the widow of Nain’s dead son; when the prodigal Father rushes out to meet his returning son; and here, where the wrong person is moved to do the right thing. Elsewhere in the gospels this stomach-turning anger/pity/compassion always promises a cure, a healing, a settling of demons, and extraordinary act of loving care, an act worthy of God.
The neighbour question—of neighbourhood and neighbourliness—ceases to be about them—the neighbour and their problems—and becomes about me. Am I a neighbour? Am I one wounded by another’s pain, angry at another’s loss, touched by another’s need? Are my innards turned upside down? Is the Law on my lips, and in my heart, and in my guts? Am I as disturbed as God is? Not to punish the bad neighbour but to lay down my life for him.
No one I know says it better than the lesbian poet Adrienne Rich:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
Who age after age, perversely,
With no extraordinary power
Re-constitute the world.