We often ask, "Who is my neighbor?" Why does the answer always surprise us?
Whether it is a Syrian refugee desperately trying to reach Europe, hundreds of Haitians making their way through Central America to the U.S. border or women carrying children on their backs fleeing wars and famines, the stateless are the neighborless—unclaimed, unwanted and unnamed. I was a refugee child who in the minutes it took to cross from Havana to Miami went from having neighbors to being a complete stranger. We were processed, given Red Cross rations and told that we were now “aliens.” For years I remember the strangeness of filling out paperwork for my mother to renew our alien status. Eventually I would learn to make light of it, claiming it meant I was from Mars.
I had not changed, but everything around me had. I had been part of a community, a web of relationships that helped ease suffering by allowing us to search for hope together. With them I had known joy. But suddenly, the vacuum of uncertainty and the constant feeling of displacement were all I knew. I wish I could tell you that the feeling of isolation and alienation vanished when I stepped into my parish church in Florida, but it did not. The Christian ideal of love dissipated in the challenge of making space for us and sharing resources with us, the “new” people, who were uninvited and inconvenient. Did I no longer have neighbors? Would I ever feel at home again? It is an ancient question.
Whether crouching in small cave dwellings or rushing among the skyscrapers of our modern cities, and in farms, fishing villages and everywhere in between, human groups have asked themselves: Who belongs with us? Who does not? Who is my enemy? Who is my friend? Who must I care about? Who can I ignore? Who must I protect? Who may I harm? It is a daunting challenge that the New Testament summarizes in four words: “Who is my neighbor?” In the face of the mounting political crises over immigration, the desperation of refugees and the unleashing of violence against particular communities at home and abroad, is it possible to bring a renewed perspective to this question?
The question of identifying our “neighbor” may strike most Christians in the same way as a question that seems more straightforward, like “What is the color of the sky?” Yet works of art help us see that not even this apparently simple question about our natural world has only one obvious answer. In asking, “Who is my neighbor?” it is good to remember the context of the question in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10. The entire chapter is about discipleship and is clearly addressed to those who would call themselves Jesus’ friends. If the answer to “Who is my neighbor?” was not obvious to those who were the closest to Jesus, by what right do we claim it is obvious to us? As Luke’s story implies, maybe there is not just one answer but many. Our question is unexpectedly complex, and one way to begin is to be both humbled and intrigued by this complexity.
What Is the Question?
My university students know that when I say “problematize,” we are about to engage in turning, digging and questioning what we thought we already knew. They relish those times. In the world they inhabit, which is often hopelessly polarized between myopic rigidity and equally paralyzing relativism, they welcome this invitation. They feel freed by an attitude that does not say there is no such thing as truth, but rather says truth must be wrestled with so we can discover its variegated multiple dimensions. Even before we can ask the question “Who is my neighbor?” posed by an ancient scholar as he spoke with Jesus 2,000 years ago, there are some things we need to know about the question itself. If, as Luke tells us, the scholar’s question is an effort to expand his own understanding of the religious law of his community expressed in Leviticus 19:18, that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” it needs a prior question. That question, put simply, is: “Why are we asking this question?”
There was a context for the question about the neighbor in Luke’s text, and there is a context for us now. Questions arise, and in Spanish we would call them inquietudes, a difficult word to translate into English, which means disquiet, restlessness, the feeling that something we need to know is just out of reach and wanting to be known. We are restless because intuitively we surmise that answering the questions posed by our inquietudes will help us make our way more truthfully through life.
Where does the question about the neighbor come from? Let me start with the ancient and move to our own time. In Luke’s text, the conversation begins with the desire to know more about what today we might call “the ethics of the kingdom.” The scholar of the law, described in commentaries as a scribe or lawyer but better called a theologian, asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). The motivation for the question is given by the Evangelist as this particular scribe’s desire to “test” Jesus, a desire we normally interpret negatively, as with other instances in the New Testament where someone tests Jesus in order to trap him into saying something incriminating. But we do not have any hint of this in Luke 10; rather, the “testing” of Jesus could be akin to our own yearning to understand more deeply something vital to our community’s life.
Additionally, there is the striking form of the question. The scholar does not speak abstractly or theoretically. Instead he refers to himself, to what he must do. This question is not rhetorical, it is personal. Addressed as teacher, Jesus responds like a good teacher with an even more penetrating question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Lk 10:26). This second question from Jesus establishes a dialogue between their common Jewish tradition and their present context. The young rabbi asks for the scholar’s interpretation; he does not want him to uncritically repeat the ancient text. Jesus wants a personal and historically located interpretation. He wants originality and creativity and so encourages the scribe to do the work of theology to engage tradition and current questions together and in this way generate insights.
Something was in the air in that moment of dialogue between the scribe and Jesus that required an answer to this question about what we must do, what the law commands. What should surprise us is that the insight comes from the scribe—from “us,” you could say—not from Jesus. What was in the air at that moment? Was the Jewish community caught in a terrible cycle of picking between apparently impossible choices? Were they wrestling with the practice of accommodating the priorities of the powerful few, which perpetuated the poverty and marginality of the many? Were they considering rebelling against those dominant structures, with the attendant violence and the sure, swift and brutal retaliation of the Romans? Was this the why behind the question? Did the requirements of the law have anything to do with their fractured society and their incoherent lives?
In Mark’s and Matthew’s versions (Mk 10:17, Mt 19:16) of this initial question about how life must be lived in order to attain eternal life, the texts move to revisiting the requirements of the Mosaic commandments, finishing with an emphasis on the care of the poor. Not so in Luke. Here the scholar of the law puts together two concepts that are not explicitly joined in the law he spent his life studying. He cites the all-pervading and obligating love of God as the first commandment in any human being’s life, knowing that this is clear from the Scriptures he holds so closely. But the second part, the part about the neighbor, is not so clear. In fact the injunction is only mentioned once in the Old Testament, in Leviticus. So during this singular conversation, the work of theology as it generates insights happens. The scholar (with Jesus’ encouragement) brings the two concepts together in what we Christians will later call the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27).
The context of a community struggling to live the requirements of its sacred covenant with the God of its ancestors reveals Jesus’ intention to bring renewal to his community’s relationship with God, not only as an ancient tradition but as a present reality. He achieves this by encouraging the scholar to move away from disembodied precepts and toward an embodiment of love.
Luckily for us, the curious scholar is not content with his very correct interpretation (as Jesus affirms) of the ethics of the kingdom as expressed in the new unity he notices between love of God and love of neighbor. It is his continuing inquietud that prompts the defining question, the question now posed by us. “Sure,” we can hear the scribe thinking to himself: “I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but just who is this neighbor? Who in this constellation of people—oppressors and oppressed, rich and poor, observant and unclean, meek and revolutionary is this neighbor our law refers to?” Does he want to know because it will affect his ethical living? I think Jesus’ reason for problematizing his interpretation is exactly because he wants the scribe to go there. Jesus is encouraging those he teaches to embrace a radical concreteness and not be content with observing the minimum required by the law. The scribe sets the stage for Jesus to respond creatively in one of the most enduring and beautiful stories in human history, the parable of the good Samaritan.
In a work by the artist John August Swanson, the neighbor in Jesus’ telling is an integral part of the creation. And the one who cares for him, bent over his body as over the fertile earth to bring it to bloom, is also the neighbor.
Now let us bring this question to our time, just as the scribe did in his time. Why are we asking this question and trying to figure out “who is our neighbor”? The following passage from the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” points to an answer:
Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world’s citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty, while countless numbers suffer from total illiteracy.
Never before has [the human person] had so keen an understanding of freedom, yet at the same time new forms of social and psychological slavery make their appearance. Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one [person] depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. For political, social, economic, racial and ideological disputes still continue bitterly, and with them the peril of a war which would reduce everything to ashes. (No. 4, 23-25)
My undergraduate students respond to this text with assent and recognition, knowing that, sadly, it describes the world they know. Their eyes turn from interested and affirmed to visible shock when I disclose that this text is from the Vatican Council and was signed in 1965. It dawns on them that something really is terribly wrong, and our conversation becomes filled with urgency. They ask, “Why have the generations since 1965 been unable to seriously address and transform the pain described in this document?” This is their question; it must be our question.
Wrestling for Answers
The most common Spanish word for neighbor is vecino, which can also be used as an adjective to say something is close to something else, that it occupies the space precisely next to it. We could say that to be vecino or vecina to something else means you cannot take a picture of “this” without “that” also being in the picture—there is an unavoidable closeness. In this sense, vecino/neighbor refers to the proximity of space.
Following this understanding of neighbor, which is also the general understanding in English and in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures the scribe has studied, the neighbor is the one who shares my space and who is physically near to me. Focused this way, we see the problem. What about when people are not close by, when the space between us is vast? What do we do when the area separating us from our neighbor is made up not just of the distance of city blocks or farmlands, but by the vastness of oceans made up of different languages or the chasms—much wider than the Grand Canyon—of cultural practices? What about the light years of distance when we take into account our religious beliefs, our moral imperatives or our political commitments?
The concept of neighbor, defined in the sense of sharing our understandings because we share the intimate space that has formed those understandings, becomes a constraint in a globalized reality. This idea of the neighbor works to limit our sphere of care to those most like us. As we well know, and as Sergio Gómez reminds us in his large canvas “The Bleeding Border,” sometimes walls are erected precisely so that those who do share physical proximity will be kept at all costs from knowing each other and possibly becoming vecinos, or neighbors. This is why Pope Francis said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.”
So back to the wrestling. In English there is only one word for neighbor; in Spanish there are three. Vecinois the closest to the English meaning, but there is a second word: prójimo. This is the word most often used in translating Scripture when it speaks about the neighbor. Prójimocomes from the Latin proximus,which also refers to nearness, proximity and what is close. However, over time prójimotook on additional meanings, and the Spanish Royal Academy gives the single definition of the word thus: “one human being in relation to another, understood through the concept of human solidarity.” We notice here an expansion of the idea of proximity, not only as referring to physical space, as in vecino, but also as predicated on our shared human condition and as necessitating our solidarity in that condition. I wonder if the growth of the meaning of prójimofrom proximusto its present form happened because the word became the predominant way of saying neighbor in the Bible. The usage in the Scriptures, always linking prójimoto the injunction to love, may have given birth to a new word for the Spanish-speaking world to always connote our shared humanity.
What about the third word in Spanish for neighbor? This one is used sparsely in Scripture translations, but when it is, it hits us with the full force of its uncompromising meaning—the word is semejante. The root of this word is semejar, to resemble. When used as an adjective, instead of referring to proximity this word refers to essential sameness. To say something is semejante to something else means the two are so closely aligned that the qualities of one can be accurately deduced from the qualities of the other. Semejante is just a dash away from “same” and stands between it and the concept of “other.” Semejante, in Scripture, is often a way to simply refer to human beings, to us as human creatures. It often stands in for the word “human” and helps us see the neighbors as just “us” with slight variations.
These three words help set the stage for the question “Who is our neighbor?” In an earlier time, vecino was a rich concept because it denoted the identity of those who lived in las vecindades, housing areas or tenements, where the central patio served as a playground, washing facilities, a communication center—the heart of a community for the poor. These vecindades helped to develop ways for residents to rely on each other, to have neighborliness incarnated in virtues of shared responsibility and care. Without romanticizing poverty, the simplicity of neighborhoods where life was shared—perhaps one lone television set brought everyone together, or meals were communal enterprises with eggs from one vecino and flour from another—is unknown to many of us. Today, such simplicity is rare, and the poor as well as the not-so-poor are encouraged to live apart and to always crave more, because such discontent fuels consumerist economies.
Today, it is problematic if we define the neighbor as the one who shares my space, since physical neighborhoods are strictly defined by socioeconomic status, ethnicity and other variables. More and more, we tend to live near people who are like us, and research shows that in the last few decades, people in the United States have clustered more and more into carefully defined affinity groups in ways unprecedented in recent American history. One look at our electoral maps, with their deeply red and deeply blue counties, as well as the reputations and pedigrees of particular regions, tells us that if we answer the question,“Who is our neighbor?” in this way, we will likely just look on our block, our political party, our ethnicity and our faith (or lack of it). We will not venture any further than that.
What about prójimo? How does this word answer our question about the identity of my neighbor? Prójimo focuses on our shared human condition and refers to solidarity. For Spanish speakers (even in the most common vernacular usage) it always carries with it the biblical injunction to love. So the neighbor here is understood as that other human being whose dignity I am called to protect, and whose well-being I am called to guard vigilantly. Prójimo answers “Who is my neighbor?” very simply: the one who needs you, this is your neighbor.
Finally, what about semejante? This beautifully poetic word makes an even more potent point and challenging claim on us. It answers the question of who our neighbor might be by first turning our gaze to ourselves and to the contours of our own humanity. Then it turns us around and outward to recognize the resemblance, the radical closeness of attributes and qualities that all human beings share. Semejante answers the question with poetry—see the beauty in you, see the beauty in everything that resembles you. Your neighbor is close and also far, needy and also comfortable, known and also unknown. Because your neighbor is precisely every single human person. We could say, using theological language, that the neighbor here is the one who, as made by God, shares our imago Dei. We are variations on a theme, the theme of finite yet strikingly beautiful and varied images of God who need each other.