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Who Is My Neighbour? edited by Richard Carter and Samuel Wells

25 May 2018

Name and shame, too, says Peter Selby to thinkers on migration

WHEN it comes to love of neighbour, St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, comprising “neighbours” of great diversity, speaks out of long experience of offering neighbour-love of huge range and commitment. Anyone unfamiliar with the reach of St Martin’s could well start this book at the end, with Richard Carter’s pastoral diary: that will provide one very moving answer to “Who is my neighbour?”

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a different kind of answer, not so much an “answer” as a questioning of the lawyer-questioner and of 20 centuries of readers to this day. These essays, based on lectures given at St Martin’s by very distinguished and varied speakers, are at once demanding and inspiring. Sam Wells, republishing his “Remember you were a stranger” as a prologue, makes migrants a test case of neighbour-love, and of many other aspects of Christian discipleship.

Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley turn the title question back on us so that we in our turn face Jesus’s questioning of his questioner. Their writing is demanding and rewarding: if you follow their reading, the disturbing question is, How do you respond to the challenge of the surprising stranger who brings the gift of life — and to the challenge to “do likewise”?

What that means for Stanley Hauerwas is that his (rather unwelcome) “neighbour” Donald Trump requires him to engage afresh (if, perhaps, at excessive length) with John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue and their critique of liberalism; as with that book, Hauerwas’s essay might leave some readers with the sense that there are positive aspects of liberalism which have not been given enough credit.

Justin Welby’s “The cost of reconciliation” makes important connections between reconciliation, with God and neighbour, and identity. Luke Bretherton’s essay argues that politics is a form of neighbour-love, and Brendan Cox’s piece later in the book gives a sense, in tone as well as content, of what such a better — more “neighbourly” — politics might be like; his essay is suffused with the impressive graciousness of his response to his wife Jo’s murder. Both his and Bretherton’s reflections leave us with the disturbing question how their ideals of politics can be fulfilled, given the politics we are currently experiencing.

At the centre of the book are two illuminating exegetical contributions to understanding the question of the neighbour: Megan Warner reflects on the connected and contrasting hospitalities of Abraham and Lot in “Welcoming Strangers Unawares”; and Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu, in her piece of Torah exposition, shows “Loving your neighbour as yourself” in a very different light from the Christian preaching tradition that often gives “loving yourself” a primarily psychological meaning.

Michael Northcott writes a characteristically trenchant essay on what the eco-crisis means for our being — or not being — neighbours, and Sarah Teather, out of her experience with the Jesuit Refugee Service and as a politician, asks the same question about the refugee crisis. But another Catholic reflection, Anna Rowlands’s “Whatever happened to the common good?” prompts a rather disturbing and important facing of the question of the neighbour as she presents her reflection on the unnerving conversation that she had on migrants in a Sunderland pub (Comment, 29 March).

Rowlands’s reflections are followed by Cox’s compelling call for “A better kind of politics” and then by Sam Wells’s republished “My neighbour, God’s gift”. Wells draws from two contemporary novels to make this positive assessment of the neighbour against a tendency to see the neighbour as potentially submerging us in an ocean of need.

This impressive book offers a profound vision of how the power of neighbour-love, Ambalu’s “love for the neighbour”, might transform our lives, including the treatment of migrants. Yet something is missing that would be needed if this book were to be, as it claims in its preface, about migration.

This review was written in the week of the Windrush-generation scandal; it could as well have been written on days when the news was of manhandlings of “failed” asylum-seekers on to aeroplanes, the incarceration of women separated from their children, and the destitution of those awaiting immigration decisions, let alone the drowning of desperate people in the Mediterranean.

A book on migration, besides offering a vision, has, surely, to confront the combination of bureaucratic incompetence and wilful cruelty in the treatment migrants often receive. Of course, the people of St Martin-in-the-Fields and their essayists know that combination well enough, but in a volume of such deep and varied thinking, there is too little of that real world of shame, political opportunism, and this country’s particular disgrace; and of the campaigning that needs to happen.

How to speak of that real world while still offering the vision of the life-giving stranger at the heart of this book, the Samaritan who is God’s answer to the lawyer’s question — that surely is the challenge that we face when migrants come among us and pose for us, just by their presence, their aspiration, or their desperation, the sharply practical question, “Who is my neighbour?”

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

Who Is My Neighbour? The global and personal challenge
Richard Carter and Samuel Wells, editors
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