After a divisive election, how do we answer the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’
“I will break their hearts of stone/ Give them hearts for love alone.” – “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte
The election is over. Praise God. We have voted in a president, and we are a fractured country. Our task now, after we have defaced our neighbors’ political signs and posted undignified invectives online, is to figure out how to be more neighborly to one another.
Here is a story about how bad of a neighbor I have been: A kid in town has been collecting recyclables to raise money for her softball team. All spring and summer, we were dropping off bags of bottles and cans that had cash redemption value. Then one day, as we approached with our donations, we saw a terrible sight: A “Trump 2020” sign—at the kid’s house.
I confess that my first reaction was to take my bags back home. In my paltry defense, I have existed in a state of political outrage for almost four years. Thankfully, my better half made the decision. My kind husband took the bag from my hands and set it, along with his, at the end of the driveway. And I realized he was right. The softball team had done nothing wrong. What hope do I have for any unity in the country if I cannot even surrender my cans and bottles to the little Trumpster in my town?
Another mea culpa: On a recent lovely fall day, my husband and I were taking a walk in the woods. An iPad mini lay on the path, strangely out of place. We picked it up, hoping for a clue about its owner. A few innocuous messages showed on the screen. So did the app icon for Fox News.
If our hearts have collectively turned to stone, I do not know how we can ever care for the common good or heal our common home.
Ugh, I thought. Then I took a deep breath and recoiled from myself. My first reaction stank to high heaven. It did not reflect the person I want to be. I recognized the bitter, judgmental brute incubating inside of me. Did someone deserve to lose an iPad because of a download I disapproved of? Of course not. But this is where my mind has come to, thanks to these four wearing years: Fox News consumer equals Bad Person. The owner of the iPad turned out to be a nearby landowner with whom we’d had several pleasant conversations in passing. He is not a Bad Person.
Conversely, I imagine that some Fox News watchers think I am a Bad Person. I want to outlaw their semiautomatic weapons and ban their fracking. I want a Green New Deal for the planet and civil rights for my gay child. My beliefs are, in fact, what Fox News watchers fear they are.
But if I do not want to be a Bad Person in my own mind, I somehow first need to stop viewing others as the Bad People, or even viewing them as other. I have to soften my instinctively rigid response to differing values and diverging politics, because if my heart has turned to stone, I do not know where to go from there. If our hearts have collectively turned to stone, I do not know how we can ever care for the common good or heal our common home. How on earth can we begin to work together with these stone-cold hardened hearts?
How do we all take a breath and remember that we are one people, and that in order not to destroy ourselves, we need the grace of community?
Maybe we need a few good prophets.
We have big decisions ahead of us and big problems to sort out and big prejudices to work through. I risk winning a prize for understatement, but one election does not make a miracle. How do we all take a breath and remember that we are one people, and that in order not to destroy ourselves, we need the grace of community?
I think of the crafty question put to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Who is my neighbor? The easy answer is the family or the couple or the person you can see from your home. Your neighbors are the folks who live in your building or on your street or in your town. Jesus has a tougher answer for us. He tells us a story about an unexpected neighbor, a Samaritan loathed by Jesus’ listeners, who tended lavishly to an injured stranger. Go and do likewise, Jesus said.
Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus tells us. Here is a challenge: Start with the neighbor you love the least. For me, this is everyone who watches Fox News and owns an arsenal. My neighbor is the fellow Catholic who calls me a bad Catholic. My neighbor is the one who makes fun of political correctness and does not recycle and maybe even litters. And I must find something in each neighbor to love.
I am not saying we will ever be pals with any friendly intimacy. We don’t have to hang out to be neighborly. I do not have to send them a funny birthday card or bring a dip to their Super Bowl party. But I must discover something we hold in common. I have to find ways we can debate without acrimony. With God’s grace, I can substitute understanding for judgment. With God’s grace, I can listen without dismissing. I must grasp for something that bonds us as beloved children of God so that I no longer contribute to chaos and hatred. After all, I am called to see the face of Jesus in these neighbors’ faces, to love them as I love myself.
So I pray: Dear God, break my heart of stone into pieces. Give me a heart for love. Give me—give us—a place to start.