Who Is Our Neighbor?

Who Is Our Neighbor?

January 10, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

This has been a hard week in a year of hard weeks. Our nation experienced an assault on Wednesday, when an armed mob gained entry to the US Capitol, while legislators were certifying the results of the presidential election. The Nation watched as our own citizens did what has not been done since we were at war with the British in 1814; took over the seat of government by show of force, and even waved an enemy flag in those sacred halls. The mob was encouraged by our president, and also by a steady diet of false information about the election and its aftermath. Those who were in the mob were not living in a fact-based reality, as one commentator has put it. Why did they believe lies about the November election? Why does this conspiracy refuse to accept legitimate votes of African American voters in Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta and elsewhere? If people only get their news from sources that are lying to them, they will believe those lies. If they are white people who do not know people of color, they will believe lies about minority communities. If they are voters who do not know anyone whose views differ from theirs, or if they only share their opinions inside the echo chamber of social media, then there is no discourse which loves the truth. The mob on Wednesday represents a failure of community in our country. It represented a breakdown of the civic neighborhood. Not literally who lives on our street, although that does make a difference. But who people think of as belonging to the civic community, who matters, whose voice counts. Ultimately, who is our brother? our sister? and our sibling? in American society. We see this in everyday questions too, not only a big lie about the election, but small moments of anxiety and concern that go on every day in our civic life. Who should get financial help during the pandemic? Should checks go to everyone? Should we prioritize the unemployed? Should we differentiate between self-employed people and those who are laid off workers? Who are citizens versus workers who are not? Who should get the coronavirus vaccines first? As frontline health care workers and first responders have received the vaccine, and now elders will be next to receive the vaccine, we have heard stories of people jumping the line of saying “it's not right that my neighbors should get a vaccine before I do.” We've seen this in the census, who should count all the people living in the country as the Constitution says, or just some subset, just citizens or just those who are here with documentation. In fact, with immigrants we see all the ways that we categorize immigrants, even if they work and support the economy. We cast people in or out depending on whether they are here with or without documentation, whether they are educated or not, a refugee and asylum seeker, a country of origin, we use all these things to divide people into categories. The President's efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election are based on whose votes really count. And even as that election has been certified and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will take office in just 10 days’ time; states are making it harder for people to vote in Georgia, which experienced record turnout, both in the general election and in their special runoff, and many of those votes were absentee. Now the legislature of Georgia is seeking to make it much more difficult to vote by absentee ballot, to limit who will vote in future elections.

So much of our public policy is based on this issue of separating people into categories. Even when we're trying to do good, sometimes we can only find the leverage to do good for a small group of people. I was at a meeting in Worcester a few years ago with civic leaders who were looking for a way to reduce the number of young people, children, teenagers, who were entering the criminal justice system. And these leaders, all of good intention, and all seeking to reduce the number of teenagers in the criminal justice system, were hearing a presentation about a program that had worked elsewhere in Massachusetts to help divert young offenders who are already part of the Department of Children and Families service system. Children, who themselves, or their families, had already been contacted by DCF in some way, or were receiving support, or had been part of the foster care system, that these kids, at the moment when they could be arraigned and charged and put into jail, were instead met with services, and given the opportunity to turn their lives around without becoming part of the criminal justice system. And here were all these people of goodwill, who wanted to do something for all the young people who found themselves in trouble in Worcester, looking at an opportunity to do something just for this subset of people because there was some political will, there was a way to provide services, and there for this category, we could help. And I saw that the road toward the goal; perhaps the goal where no young person, no child, would be in jail, that the road to that goal would be piecemeal; this group of kids, this group of kids, this group; not to be able to say, all kids, we’ll keep all kids out of a criminal justice system.

From ancient times until now, humans have sought to define who mattered, who was a neighbor, who an outsider, who was a sibling, and who an enemy. And amidst all of this categorization, there has always been the voice of our highest calling asking us to see everyone as our neighbor, and to love them like ourselves. We know that this struggle to define our neighbors and know how to treat them has always been part of the human condition because it shows up in our ancient stories. We heard that in the story of Jericho, that Juliet told this morning. On the one hand, the Bible tells the triumphant story of the Israelites conquering Jericho, with the help of God, knocking down the walls and killing all of the residents of the city who are living there, so that the Israelites could take it over. And at the same time, those same stories, and other parts of the Bible, preserved by editors because they were important and true, most likely, there are stories that tell us that foreigners continued to live with Israelites in Canaan for generations after the two communities had begun to intermingle. That many communities were hostile to the Israelites for a long time after they first entered the area, and that Israelites lived with foreigners among them, and as we heard in Isaiah today, that some foreigners were loyal to God and followed his commandments and were part of the community of Israel. The stories of battle in the Hebrew Bible are interspersed with acknowledgment that foreigners lived as neighbors to Israel and even part of Israel itself. We can see these stories in the Bible as an argument among the different writers and storytellers through the centuries and speaking to us today. What should we do about these people who live with us but worship a different God? How should we feel about the fact that sometimes we fight other tribes and lose? How can we cope with the trauma of killing, and being killed in combat? How do we know our God is the right one? These stories and struggles are with us, even into our own history today. America has struggled throughout its existence with who was in, and who was out, the conflict between our ideals and our practice of neighborliness.

We see it at the founding of our country, “we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal”, Thomas Jefferson wrote, and he wrote it at the same time that he owned slaves himself. And when we drafted our constitution, we could not say that all men were created equal, because slavery was enshrined in the constitution, and slaves were considered three fifths of a human being. We are seeing now today, still, what happens when we refuse to accept our neighbors. Our country has slowly moved toward more acceptance of difference in those 200 years since our founding. We've seen more acceptance of women's leadership, more acceptance of LGBTQ families, more acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter. We elected the nation's first black president, and a significant minority of Americans have responded to this growing acceptance by refusing to welcome people who are different from them as their neighbors. Since the election President Trump has lied about his loss and sought unsuccessfully to overturn the votes of the people. He specifically targeted African American districts and votes. A republican elections board member in Wayne County tried to count all the votes in her county except those in Detroit, which is overwhelmingly black. There was a credible plot to kidnap Michigan's female governor. The mob that stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday was overwhelmingly white and male. What we are seeing is a violent attempt to cast people of color, women, and LGBTQ people as outsiders, less American, not neighbors. The events this week are terrifying, and we must admit that fear and division have been our history. European settlers made enemies and victims out of American Indians on this continent. We enslaved Africans and a country dedicated to freedom. We interred Japanese Americans during World War Two. We have sought to dehumanize immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. We are all one human family, and in this country, we are all Americans. But even kin can become strangers if hatred and fear, enter the relationship.

The story we heard about Israel's history today is about a conflict between Israel and the Canaanites, who were foreigners to them, and worshipped a different God. But as Israel lived in the land and people lived, some of them in the south, and some of them in the north, which we know by the names Judah and Israel, those people moved apart from each other, and the government in Judah insisted that the sacred places of Israel be torn down. There was fear and distrust among these two people who were family to each other. And the Northerners, the Israelites, even came to be thought of as a different people and a different religion entirely, by the time of Jesus's ministry, they were known as the Samaritans. So, when Jesus tells his famous story of the Good Samaritan and asks, “who is your neighbor?”, he is asking kin to look at strangers and see sisters, brothers, and siblings instead. That tradition goes back to ancient days in Israel. And the passage from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah we heard today. God says that everyone who follows the commandments should be a neighbor, people of all gender identities, foreigners, the outsiders of Israel's time. And what were those commandments? The Prophet tells us; loose the bonds of justice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, remove the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil, offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. And if you do this, the Prophet says, your light shall rise, and the darkness and your gloom will be like noon day.

Here in this church, we love the truth.  We say it every Sunday in our covenant. The truth is the banner under which we gather. The truth is that all human beings are one family, and all Americans are bound together in a shared destiny. Citizens of goodwill must proclaim the values and truths that define who we are as a nation, not to cast out, but to bring everyone into a shared reality and a shared commitment to their neighbors. We do this by supporting racial justice and affirming that people of color are Americans whose votes count. We affirm the truth out loud and online, and we counter falsehoods and resist symbols of hate, we exercise our rights of peaceful protest and engagement with democracy. Loving the truth means loving the fact, loving, the fact that our neighbors are not just like us. When we seek justice and comfort for the afflicted, we are doing holy work.

I love you all.