THE apparently harmless word “neighbour” evokes a visceral and primal reaction. It has become a cipher for “impossible demand”. The neighbour is the person who, through intrusion, manipulation, limitless need, or infuriating invasion, presents us with requests that it is not possible to fulfill.
We are divided — our hearts are torn — by the self-reservation and self-assertion that says: “No, I’ve tried so hard for so long to get to a place of sufficiency that I’m not having this interloper drag me down into the abyss;” and the guilt or compassion that says: “That’s a human being; that’s a person who deserves my respect and support, who could easily one day be me — who has, at another time, been me.”
And it is that torn, confused heart that the whole migrant crisis, and the challenge of being a human person in an individualised society, are all about. For many, the answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” becomes: “The one who promises to drown me in a boundary-less ocean of need.”
In his book Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption (Spiegel & Grau, 2014), Bryan Stevenson describes how the prison population in the United States has increased from 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million today. Within this statistic lies a litany of damaging and often deliberate mistakes and miscarriages of justice, together constituting a system that Stevenson describes as being “defined by error”. His organisation, the Equal Justice Initiative, has saved 125 men from the death penalty since its foundation in 1994.
Sitting in tears after putting the phone down on a man who was to be executed later that evening, Stevenson looks back on 25 years of struggle against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice, and realises that he does what he does because he is broken, too. In the words of Thomas Merton, we are bodies of broken bones.
Stevenson believes: “Our brokenness is the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.”
He perceives that “We’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak — not because they are a threat to public safety, or beyond rehabilitation, but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.”
He recalls victims of violent attacks and relatives of the murdered, “and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. . . Of how we’ve allowed our victimisation to justify the victimisation of others. We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible.”
But doing so simply leaves us all broken.
STEVENSON recalls how he met an older black woman on the steps of a courthouse, wearing a “church-meeting hat”. She says: “My 16-year-old grandson was murdered 15 years ago, and I loved that boy more than life itself.”
Some boys were found guilty of killing her grandson. She thought that their conviction would make her feel better — but, actually, it made her feel worse. A woman came over and let her lean on her shoulder. The woman asked if the boys were hers, and she said no: the boy they had killed was hers.
Then she said: “I think she sat with me for almost two hours. For well over an hour, we didn’t neither of us say a word. It felt good to finally have someone to lean on at that trial, and I’ve never forgotten that woman. . .
“About a year later, I started coming down here. I don’t really know why. I guess I felt like maybe I could be someone that somebody hurting could lean on.”
Then she said these words: “When I first came, I’d look for people who had lost someone to murder or some violent crime. Then it got to the point where some of the ones grieving the most were the ones whose children or parents were on trial; so I just started letting anyone lean on me who needed it.
“All these young children being sent to prison for ever; all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human; people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”
Then she said to Stevenson: “I heard you in that courtroom today. I’ve even seen you here a couple of times before. I know you’re a stonecatcher, too.”
That is what a neighbour does: catches stones, and sits for two hours as a shoulder to lean on. The first, catching stones, is what Jesus did on the cross; the second — coming to us and offering us a shoulder to lean on — is what he does for ever. Whether we are a stonecatcher or a shoulder, we can be a neighbour, too; for to be a neighbour is to become the body of Jesus on earth.
The Revd Dr Sam Wells is the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London. His most recent book is How Then Shall We Live? (Canterbury Press, 2016).
This is an extract from a lecture given at St Martin-in-the-Fields last month. A podcast of the complete text is at www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/podcasts/my-neighbour-gods-gift.