Saturday, March 06, 2010

Neighborliness and the Ways of Death and Life

The biblical injunction is to love our neighbors, even as we love ourselves.  I have become increasingly concerned about our ability to understand and live out this injunction.  There seems to be in the wind a wild west sensibility where everyone is on their own -- even taking the "law" into their own hands.  We hear anti-tax and anti-government tirades, but forget that our neighbor may benefit from one or more of those programs.

Each day as I take my car out of the garage, I head out on public streets (many of which are in dire need of repair) -- who pays for them?   I may not call upon them, but I rest easy knowing that there is police and fire protection.  My son is in a public college (so I benefit there), but I don't have any kids in public schools (but I'm glad they're there for the families with children).  Social Security and Medicare, which take up much of the non-defense related national spending provides essential services.  I hear people say that they can take care of themselves, and yet we can't.  We need each other.

As I'm thinking on these things, I'm reading Walter Brueggemann's Journey to the Common Good, (WJK Press, 2010).  I'm taken with the book and its title, because it speaks to something that is, in my mind, being lost today.  He writes:

Now the two triads offered by Jeremiah constitute the decisive either/or of faith in ancient Israel and of faith in the derivative story of humanity:  

  • either:  wisdom, might, and wealth;
  • or:  steadfast love, justice, righteousness.
One is a triad of death because it violates neighborliness.  The other is a triad of life because it coheres with YHWH's best intention for all creation.  In prophetic discourse there is no compromise on this either/or, no middle ground.  It is a contestation that is designed to place all serious persons, liberal and conservative, in a profound crisis.  It is the purpose of the poetry to invite the listener into serious contestation where we may, always again, redecide about our common life in the world.  (p. 65).
You might wonder why wisdom is listed here.  The reason is that the wisdom of Solomon is designed to "control the mystery and to reduce it to a technical operation; . . ." (p. 60). 

What is the common good?  What does it mean to be a neighbor?  Indeed, who is my neighbor?  Am I ready to contribute to the common good?  These are questions that are up for contestation.

1 comment:

John said...

So just last night my sister said that justice was a mere human construct. She was astonished to realize this and was deeply concerned over its ramifications for her sense of reality.

My comment was that Scripture has taught this since the time of Job, but most of us continue to fool ourselves into thinking that clear notions of right and wrong, entitlement to our fair share, due punishment of evil, and the eventual rewarding of goodness are all somehow written into the source-code of the universe. What we think is justice is not justice, but instead is just what we would like to see occur.

Job thought he was being treated unjustly and he demanded that God explain how his suffering was consistent with God's justice as God's justice was perceived by Job.

Gods reply, for all of its drama, hit the nail on the head: 'When you can explain how and why I built the universe the way I did, we can have the conversation you seek.' In truth, if Job did understand all of that he most likely wouldn't need to pursue the point.

The rest of Scripture for the most part defines justice not as specific results, but in terms processes, not as outcomes but as obligations: we are to feed the poor, slake the thirst of the thirsty, house the homeless, clothe the naked, and generally care for the 'have-nots'. From those who have, much is expected. It is the responsibility of those who claim communinion with Jesus to feed all who have need: Jesus did not say 'see that they have food' but "You feed them."

This understanding of justice is wholly consistent with steadfast love, the righteousness of God and Jesus parable on neighborliness.

John