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Which Neighbors?

Part 2 of Reading the News Like a Christian

By Abigail Woolley Cutter

For anyone who wants to share in the burdens of others, it can be difficult to take in the onslaught of global news without despair. In an earlier post, I noted how it can help to remind ourselves that the very media through which we access news are part of the problem: because we receive far more information than we can possibly do anything about (Postman’s “information-to-action ratio”), we are likely to relate to news in disordered ways. We could start to see news as merely something to consume passively, or we could become hot-headed and combative, or we could see such a dismal big picture that we lose hope, even when our own lives are fine. To correct our posture of engagement, I suggested two practices offered by Kate Rademacher: one that shifts the medium, and one that focuses our intercessory prayer.

But recognizing how the media contribute to the overwhelm is only part of the task. When we know of burdens people are bearing, we are still actually called to share in them — sometimes, at least. Don’t forget Matthew 25, where Jesus assures us that when we know people are without food, water, clothes, or homes, or when people are sick or imprisoned, we serve him when we minister to their needs.

The question, then, is how we should approach this task with the world structured as it is. Most of us know very little about the needs of our neighbors and a great deal about the needs of the world. As for me, outside my household and my professional responsibilities, no one I see daily asks for help. Instead, the appeals I get come from popup ads about Syria from the International Rescue Commission, or GoFundMe campaigns passed around by Facebook contacts. Then, of course, there’s tithing to the church, which presumably distributes funds to people in need. But the only things that interrupt my routine are appeals to do something about vast need, far away, through organizations I have to trust mostly blindly.

In these conditions, I rarely have any idea whether I have done what I am called to do. I know my giving through a relief organization will not solve anything. I can hope it will make a small difference, but I must be content never to find out. And then, have I given in the right place, or in the right amount? If I were told I could save the life of someone I see in front of me, I could be sure I should stop everything and make a serious sacrifice. But in response to an endless ocean of anonymous need, how do I know what burden is mine to bear?

Political theologians — particularly Augustinian liberals like Luke Bretherton or Eric Gregory — sometimes talk about proximity as a gauge of responsibility. All else being equal, I have a greater obligation to the “near neighbor” than to the “far neighbor” — terms that acknowledge, with a nod to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, that the word “neighbor” really applies to everyone. Responsibility increasing with proximity could go a long way to guiding how I should read and respond to the news.

The problem, though, as Justin Ashworth has protested, is that all else is not equal. Need is concentrated in certain parts of the world, certain countries, certain neighborhoods, certain churches, certain circles of friends. The wealthy are segregated from the poor to the extent that if they settle for attending to their “near neighbors,” they will never be faced with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. Furthermore, while there are complex reasons for economic segregation, it is by no means completely accidental: people with means could live among the poor, but — both individually and collectively — we have usually chosen not to. Considering these conditions of segregation, Ashworth asks what the parable of the Good Samaritan is telling us: “Is not seeking out the vulnerable tantamount to crossing to the other side of the road?” In other words, given the way our lives are structured, special effort is required to find our neighbors, not to avoid them. If our needy neighbors aren’t exactly near, the simple rule of the “near neighbor” doesn’t suffice.

Along the same lines, I begin to wonder whether, because I am not closely connected with many vulnerable people, reading the news has become one of the few ways I hear about the suffering people who have belonged to me all along. If I am wrongly removed from some of my “near neighbors,” to look immediately around me is actually to avoid seeing them. When it feels unacceptable that my life is safe while others’ are not, the feeling is probably not something as dismissible as emotions out of place, but an intuition that these people — or others like them — should have been part of my life.

If the disconnect between my own security and the disasters of distant others is particularly jarring, it may be an invitation to move closer to my vulnerable neighbors. What I am thinking of here is not another item on a weekly to-do list, like volunteering (though that could be the right thing for some). Rather, I want to ask: why do I not often find people in my circles asking me to share their burdens? Are there struggling people right in front of me, who don’t feel they can speak up? Have I chosen a community, or congregation, where people usually live in comfort and security? Why don’t I know anyone in prison? How would my routines need to change, so that sharing my neighbors’ burdens wouldn’t take much “crossing to the other side of the road?”

And until I can make those changes, when I read the news, maybe it’s right to feel wrong.


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