Seeing Our Neighbor through the Eyes of Jesus

by Jeff Ritchie

“Can’t Christianity be something simpler than we have made it?” This was the query of a man in the Bible study I attend on Wednesday mornings. The pastor wisely replied, “Yes, Jesus distilled it down to two things: love God and love your neighbor.” Simple? That is true. Easy? Not by a long shot. So how do we go about obeying a simply-stated, but very challenging commandment?

First of all, some people don’t want to be our neighbors, and if the truth were to be told, we would not naturally want to be theirs. A few years ago, my father shared a book with his children: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. The thesis of the book is that we are becoming a nation of people who do not want to associate with, or even listen to, people who are different from us. For example, he notes that while most of Texas is “red,” in the sense of Republican, people who see themselves as “blue,” or Democrat, can take refuge in Austin. Bishop points out similar “sorting out” where politically conservative people cluster in “red enclaves” within “blue states.” The findings in this book upset my father, for that was not the kind of community in which we were raised. He did not want the next generation of Ritchies to hunker down just where we could be with “our own kind.” 

Last year another book described a different kind of “sorting” has taken place over decades in which peoples almost invisible to each other live in the same town but rarely interact. I refer to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy which is an autobiographical journey of a man whose family migrated from Appalachia to the Midwest. Vance and his people from the hills of Kentucky had almost nothing in common with the other residents of Middletown, Ohio where he moved as a youngster. They kept to themselves as much as they could, and the “majority culture” residents of Middletown lived largely unaware of the “other” within their midst.

Even if we want to reach out to those who are different from us, whatever those differences are, neighbor love does not always come easy. I have recently read four additional books that offer some tools to help us reach out to people “not like us.” Let me introduce them briefly.
Waking Up White, by Debby Irving, is an autobiographical sketch of an educated, upper-middle class, white woman from liberal New England, who “woke up” to the fact that she was unable truly to see, to hear, and to respond appropriately to people of color – even though she was committed to overcome racism in herself and in society. In her ongoing journey, Ms. Irving has discovered much about the unconscious ways she has acted out of her family and community of origin that have kept her from truly overcoming the damage that racism has caused in our society. What impacted me from reading this book was my need to “wake up,” or be aware of, how my family, my geography, and my culture help or hurt being the kind of neighbor God calls me to be.

The second book, Misreading Scripture through Western Eyes, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, pinpoints one of those “wake up” moments for us. Mr. Richards served as a missionary in Southeast Asia, and he draws many of the lessons in this book from that era of his life. As a western missionary Richards experienced tension with fellow Christians from Southeast Asia who interpreted and applied Scripture differently from the way he did. They and he were equally committed to the authority of the Bible. The differences causing the tension were largely cultural ones. 

Richards found that a key to understanding the differing interpretations and applications of Scripture lay in the phrase, “what goes without saying.” Wherever we grow up or in which we live a long time, we are part of a culture whose norms we then absorb from the people around us. Some things are “done” and other things are “not done.” It simply “goes without saying” that we do what we do because that is the cultural norm. When we bump up against different norms, either within our own country or abroad, we don’t know how to react. 

I too have experienced the discomfort that can come from different understandings of what “goes without saying” across cultures. The most recent of these experiences came on a mission trip last year to Ethiopia. The Outreach Foundation is reaching out to refugees from civil war in South Sudan, and among our U.S. partners are two Sudanese American churches. On this trip my traveling companions were two of the leaders from these churches. In addition to being committed to the larger mission among refugees, they also had a personal stake in our trip, for they have relatives who have been caught up in this war, and they were going to be seeing some of those relatives. For them, it “went without saying” that when they saw their families face to face, they had no choice but to give what they could to their relatives suffering great hardship. 

As a missionary, I had been taught that the best way to help people in need in a missionary situation was to give aid through a church or mission agency. If I were to aid people directly, I might set up some unhealthy dynamics between myself, the aid recipient, and those who did not receive aid. My “best practice of mission” came into tension with “what went without saying” for my Sudanese American friends. From my time with them on that trip to Ethiopia, I realized that I must wrestle more deeply with my understanding of “best practices” of mission when the “neighbor” is also a relative of my friend.

The final books that are engaging me in this conversation about loving my neighbor are The Dangerous Act of Worship and The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, by Mark Labberton. Loving our neighbor is rightly done when we see our neighbor through the eyes of Jesus. But to do that, Labberton says, we must engage in a transformation of our minds and hearts that is analogous to “waking up,” the same phrase Irving used in her book.

What can wake us up is the “dangerous act of worship.” By “worship” Labberton understands something broader than Sunday morning service (though it includes that). Worship, rightly understood, involves what the apostle Paul describes in Romans 12:1-2: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds that you may discern what is the will of God. . . .”

How can worship transform or awaken us? Labberton points to a turning point in the life of the church he served in Berkeley, California. They had invited a Bishop from Uganda to talk about the horror of the suffering of the child soldiers in northern Uganda who were being abducted into “The Lord’s Resistance Army,” a terrorist organization that was active in the late 1980s through the 1990s. After hearing the gripping stories of these children, the members of the church asked, “What can we do?” The Bishop replied, “You won’t know what to do until they [the children] are first your children.” In other words, concern for “abducted children” must change to “my abducted children.” And that is what happened in the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. Labberton writes, “We posted pictures of those suffering in northern Uganda in our sanctuary so that as we met for corporate worship we realized our doing so was about more than merely ourselves. . . . Some of us subscribed to online newspapers from Uganda. Some of us made our screensaver pictures of people in northern Uganda so we looked at their faces every day. . . . These were all simple expressions of worship that helped deliver us from . . . our self-focused world and took us closer to seeing, naming, and acting in the light of reality. Another church I know has made an intentional decision to build a relationship with a church with people from a different culture, people who are refugees from South Sudan. They have a shared Vacation Bible School with the local Sudanese Church. Their women’s groups get together. For them, the four-year old civil war in South Sudan is no longer someone else’s tragedy. It is their tragedy as well.”

Even after six decades of life I am still learning how to be a good neighbor to those across the street or around the world. I realize I need all the help I can get to see my neighbors as God sees them. I invite those of you reading this blog to share ways you are learning to love your neighbor intentionally, “dangerously,” and joyfully.

Jeff Ritchie
Mission Advocate