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Stop Resolving and Love Your Neighbor

See also a commentary in support of Palestinians.

On April 17 in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, at a coffee shop not far from my church, a barista overheard patrons speaking Hebrew and wrote Free Palestine on their cups. The Jewish Chronicle reported that one of the patrons asked why she wrote those words, and she replied, “You’re doing genocide.”

The incident functioned in real time like a social media post: a person announced her partisan position into the ether and attendant parties responded with concern. Other customers reacted with curiosity and anxiety. Little engagement or understanding emerged. What does “You’re doing genocide” mean? Who was doing this genocide and how? Were the Hebrew-speaking patrons known to be involved in some meaningful way in this alleged genocidal doing? Were observers invited into further conversation that would change or solidify a personal or group position, directing subsequent actions? The barista’s pen turned the group of people seeking to purchase coffee into a living conflict.

The hostility of this callous remark rippled out from the coffee shop to the surrounding community where Jewish neighbors have enduring, growing, and legitimate fears for their safety. In the neighborhood where the deadliest attack on Jews in America occurred, a question hovers behind every gathering: “Do we have enough security?” As seen in both the Tree of Life synagogue massacre (October 27, 2018) and October 7, 2023, massacre in Israel by Hamas, Jewish life is under perpetual scrutiny and mortal danger.

These incidents highlight the often unspoken reality that many people hate Jews. The events of October 7 merely gave further opportunity to say such vitriol aloud. Jews are now frequently dismissed as “settler colonialists,” or “Zionists” (spit out as if it were a curse), or unworthy of life, not our neighbor.

Most Jewish people in my church’s neighborhood know someone who has died, been taken hostage, or deployed to fight because of Hamas’s terrorist strikes on October 7. Most of my Jewish neighbors are frightened because of threats to their property, livelihoods, and lives, wondering who among their non-Jewish neighbors would help or hide them in times of duress. These fears are neither imaginary nor exaggerated.

Because I know my neighbors, I know people in a household who suffered when “for blood and soil” (a Nazi slogan) was painted on the sidewalk beside their home. Because I know my neighbors, I am aware of a mother who walked her kippah-wearing child to school and heard a man shout with menace from his car, “Hitler’s winning!” Because I know my neighbors, I am aware of what it takes to organize security for a bris or bat mitzvah or weekly service at synagogues that share the same street as much church, which rarely considers such measures.

Messages on coffee cups and social media make no impact on United States geopolitical policy, yet they do corrode the neighborhood. Likewise, the 15 most recent resolutions of the Episcopal Church regarding Israel and Palestine have had similarly little impact.

Responsive to efforts to signal allegiance to 16th-century power, Martin Luther wrote, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” My Jewish neighbor needs neither performative slogans inscribed on coffee cups nor denominational resolutions regarding Israel and Palestine. Instead, my Jewish neighbor needs an invitation for coffee with questions about daily life and a listening ear. My Jewish neighbors freely acknowledge this same need among our Palestinian and Muslim neighbors, who also yearn for peace and safety beyond the Hamas abuse of power. While most of us have little influence on wartime decision-making, we all have the possibility of relationships at a human scale.

We have freedom to be curious, to develop friendships, to ask questions, to be confirmed in our viewpoints, as well as to be wrong and have our minds changed. These days we are called to the courage of being a neighbor, which means we have a neighbor. Having a neighbor suggests we are called to the vulnerability of relationship rather than the war zone of self-righteousness that causes “Free Palestine” to be scribbled on a cup lid rather than voicing, “I noticed you’re speaking Hebrew. Do you have ties to Israel? How are you doing considering the suffering I see in both Israel and Gaza? Could we have coffee together so I can understand?”

Squirrel Hill is not only the historic Jewish district of Pittsburgh. It is also the neighborhood chosen by Fred Rogers, creator of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who famously asked in song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” My church is located both within walking distance of the Tree of Life synagogue as well as his former home. Jewish people, the Rev. Fred Rogers, and myriad others are my neighbor. My neighbor is neither the United States nor Israeli governments. My neighbor is not Hamas, the terror organization currently presiding over the Palestinian people. My neighbor has a name, needs, interests, hope, and perspectives to learn.

As Christian people, we are not called to grandstanding on cup lids, social media, or with resolutions that hardly anyone calls into question when making consequential geopolitical or theological choices. Right now our neighbors are hurting: Jewish neighbors, Palestinian neighbors, and even more between. Perhaps even you, dear reader. Our Jewish neighbors fear for their lives with good reason, wondering about their people’s ability to have even a sliver of the planet to freely live as God has called them. These children of Abraham are called to have land, descendants, and serve as a blessing to this wide world (Gen. 12). Christian people do not have to support decisions of the Israeli government, just as I expect Christian people do not support every decision of the United States government. Christian people do not have to practice faith as Jewish people do. Yet Christian people are indeed called to acknowledge Jewish people as children of God; as neighbors, in the spirited key of that preacher, Fred Rogers.

To choose cup lids and social media memes that argue questions of proportionality in war and apply blame to complicated circumstances of life and land that has yet to be resolved over decades, if not longer — and unlikely to be resolved by you or a denominational body — is to overlook the fact that you have a neighbor — in this case, a Jewish neighbor who likely knows someone who has been killed, wounded, taken hostage, or deployed to war during this conflict sparked by Hamas’s terrorist actions on October 7. Your Jewish neighbors are suffering. Your call by faith is to contact your neighbor and meet together. Your call is to have a neighbor (Jesus Christ said something about this in Mark 12), even when you misunderstand or disagree with your neighbor.

To announce and prosecute your neighbor’s perceived transgressions without attempting to know or love your neighbor is to posture. Humanity did this toward another Jew about 2,000 years ago, using nails and a cross. Outraged protests, posts, and resolutions do not result in knowing your neighbor. Rather, they result in silencing your neighbor and declaring that resurrection and new life are not possible.

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