Loving Thy (Difficult) Neighbor

Love from a Distance Is Easy and Neighbors are Anything but Distant.

Sam Bush / 5.24.21

Among the well-known Bible characters, one of the unsung heroes is the unidentified “neighbor.” He is a scriptural staple, from the Ten Commandments to the two Greatest Commandments. As to who exactly this person is, Jesus himself explains that our neighbor isn’t someone we’d consider a friend, but a rival: a (gasp!) Samaritan. Loving your neighbor means loving your enemy. But many preachers smooth over this parable to make a broader point about similarity and difference. The neighbor isn’t the person who lives next door, but the “other” — anyone from the panhandler you pass by on the street to the strangers we avoid eye contact with. The great irony of this non-literal definition of neighbor is that the ones who live next door are often the ones we pass by.

Humans have a long history of avoiding our neighbors. Every nationality has a proverb on the subject. “Good fences make good neighbors,” we say in America, while, “Love your neighbor, but don’t pull down the hedge,” is the more popular saying in Switzerland. Across the world, the way we love our literal neighbors is by keeping our noses out of their business. To pass them by is, in fact, the way we love them.

And for good reason. Neighbors are the ones most likely to see you with your makeup off and your hair down. They’re the people who will hear if you ever raise your voice at your kids. Especially if you live in a neighborhood that is “thickly settled,” a nosey neighbor can know you better than anyone. The less that people know, the better off you are. Thus, under the disguise of “privacy,” we love our neighbors by turning our backs.

Interpreting our neighbor solely as the “other” gives us permission to ignore those who are closest to us. Love from a distance, after all, is easy. Loving someone with whose intricate foibles you are well acquainted is much more difficult. The person who happens to be right in front of you is perhaps the least lovable because you know so much about them. So, while we may extend our hand to those who are clearly different from us, we tend to keep our distance from our actual neighbors precisely because they live so close.

But maybe that’s dramatizing our neighborly relations. One of the main reasons why we seldom see our neighbors is our hyper-individualized society. Driving from jobs, to school, to swim practice, we rarely have time to sit on our porches. Amidst the breakneck busyness of pre-Coronavirus life, I might have given my neighbors a friendly wave as I climbed into my car, but rarely would the conversation ever cut below the surface of the weather or weekend plans. Leave it to Covid to change all of that.

Within the past year our neighborly life is the only social interaction we’ve had. Forbidden to seek out our friend groups, we have been confined to talk to those whose only qualification is their proximity to us. Our neighborly lives are in direct contrast with what might be called “online affinity groups.” Whether it’s the “Bon Jovi Fan Club” or “Master Gardeners of Newark,” membership requires like-mindedness. We seek out those with whom we agree. Whatever binds you together simply confirms your pre-existing beliefs. Either we block people whose political views are abhorrent to our own or the algorithm does it for us. Either way, we live in a world that is curated to look like us.

Our neighbors, on the other hand, cannot easily be so curated. They may be significantly older or younger. They may hold different political view, be completely withdrawn, or throw loud parties at all hours of the night. They might have a dog who defecates on your lawn or a child who digs up your azaleas. When a new neighbor moves in next door, you are at the mercy of an unknown entity.

If your neighbors happen to be likable — if you can honestly say you enjoy the over-the-fence conversations or the impromptu cookouts — it feels like a gift. My wife and I are deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know our neighborhood this year (which happens to have 16 boys under the age of 4, something we never realized pre-Covid). The spontaneous playdates and happy-hours have been a lifeline for us when other lifelines have been completely cut off. It feels like these people were dropped into our lives by chance. There is nothing we did to earn their friendship. It was only after seeing each other at the playground four days in a row that we even introduce ourselves and one thing simply led to another, no Facebook group required.

Then again, if you happen to have bad neighbors, the same applies. As much as we may resist, we do not get to choose who God places in our lives. The business of having difficult neighbors is precisely the point — the feral cat breeders, the late-night 20-something partiers, and the disgruntled geezers are all perfect illustrations of sinful people who are desperate for love and forgiveness. Their front stoops and backyards are exactly where mercy is made manifest in a tangible way. Our own need for mercy, in fact, is made acute and inescapable by the fact that they live next door.

“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does,” Martin Luther famously said. It’s true, isn’t it? It is sometimes hard to determine whether or not we actually love God, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor. When God’s love and mercy descend upon us, there is no need to return the favor by sending it back up to heaven. Once love comes down, it can only move horizontally from person to person.

Of course, the impossibility of loving one’s neighbor leads us to look back up to God for mercy and pardon, and there is an endless supply. As Fred Rogers (i.e., Mr. Friendly Neighbor himself) once said, “All of us, at some time or other, need help. … That’s one of the things that connects us as neighbors.” To our surprise, God is the ultimate nosy neighbor, the One who drops by unannounced and inconveniently to ask for a cup of flour. God sees us with our makeup off, our hair down. He hears us when our children are crying and all we can do is shout. God is the only good Samaritan, rescuing the half-dead neighbor on the side of the road. He knows much more about us than we’d like to think. Even still, He invites Himself in, sits down, and dwells among us.