Monday, May 3, 2010

Who Is My Neighbor?

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race.
G.K. Chesterton
The preceding passage is taken from one of the most stirring and rhetorically brilliant passages in all of Chesterton's writing. It is a brief chapter at the end of a too-brief book. You can read the entire passage here. When you're done that, you really should read the whole book. When you've done that, why not attend a conference on the book to learn more?

In an earlier post, I spoke about the ramifications for our spiritual lives of the Gospel's teaching that we "belong" to Christ, and, by extension, to one another. I promised to come back to the subject and relate its meaning to our socio-politico notions.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is often used in addressing issues of social justice, and rightly so. It should be borne in mind that Christ's parable is addressed as an answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" We tend automatically to think of the poor man beset by robbers who receives the service of the Samaritan as the "neighbor." But, when Christ reiterates the question at the end of the parable, he asks which of the three passers-by - the Pharisee and Priest who ignore the man's plight, or the Samaritan who shows mercy - are neighbor to the afflicted person. The Good Samaritan is the neighbor in answer to the question.

This, then, begs the question: why were the priest and the teacher not neighbors to the wounded traveller? The answer lies in their choice not to commiserate with his sorrow and enter into relationship with him. Their coldness was a result of their attentions to other precepts of ritual purity which took precedence over the command to help the migrant man left in the ditch at the side of the road by brigands. The translation of Christ's answer, then, is not that "neighbors are people who help us" - remember that the question had been asked in the first place as a means to interpreting the command to love one's neighbor. Christ's answer, we must say, is indirect. It answers the question of who neighbor is by answering the more ultimate question of what neighborliness consists in. The command to love one's neighbor contains all of the information that the questioner needed: love is what creates neighborhood. Love draws person to person and establishes relationship. Love of neighbor does not need a qualifying question to answer who neighbor is: when love reigns, the lover sees his neighbor and, seeing him with love, he does what a good neighbor ought to do.

An important point to remember, here, theologically, is that the command to love God fully is placed first. This, then, becomes the basis - theoretically and formally - for the love of neighbor. For love of God will actually beget the virtuous disposition of charity - or, if you like, infuse it - in the believer. This disposition then serves as the answer key for finding a neighbor and responding according to the command to love.

Now, the upshot of this, following from the previous post, is that our social order needs to be one in which this disposition can realistically become the basis of personal action. In the engagement of every social work, including our economic service, human beings must be able to realize this potential which is begotten by the theological virtue of love.

And this has consequences for how we organize the relationships we have in society and the economy. We must remember that the human person is at the beginning and end of all our work in these matters. When we become too abstract, speaking about the migration of peoples as a labor force, or as laborers as an aspect of economic capital, or as the roles of people within society as their determinative value or worth to the social good, we do so at our peril. Economic rationalization has its place. Abstract theory of government and the rhetoric of policy have theirs. But all of these things are at the service of the ultimately important things, the human things.

A social order's efficiency and value may be seen in terms of what can be accomplished and achieved. But the matter of how things are achieved and who achieves them is even more important to consider. People need a space in which they can have the vision that love demands: a vision directed toward human ends, toward the good for themselves and the good for others.

This should be a staggering thought for us to consider. I'm not saying that I know the necessary ways to transition to a more personalistic atmosphere for modern society, but I know that the Church's Social Teaching demands us to consider it. Think of the line in the supermarket, the stands at the major sporting event, the traffic jam on the freeway, or the cubicle in an office building: maybe a lot like that road to Jerico. The end of the road might be the commercial city, or a mis-placed sense of civic, economic or even religious duty. But our way is strewn with real people, real people who would be loved - regardless of whether or not they'd love in return. And it's our job, it's the whole purpose of the love God gives us, to see them fully, to become neighbor to them by considering them under the aspect of a full personalist humanism, and if necessary by rendering them a service in charity.

The difficulty of this excercise should sober us. But it's also worth considering whether it needs to be so difficult, or how it might be less so. In our earlier post, we looked at how our membership in the Mystical Body of the Church bears a mark of personalism by our individual recognition within the unity to which we are ordered. We are called to communion, yes, but we are called by name - the name we are marked with at the same time as our marking with the sign of the Cross in Baptism and our "being claimed" for Christ. We retain that mark of individuality and it's what enables us to be in real relation with others, to belong to them while still being ourselves.

And so, another question that must confront us and that should inform our consideration of social ethics is how we enable people to become truly "thematic" to one another (to borrow a term from the personalist philosophers). What this means is that people need opportunities to excercise their humanity, their full activity of reason and will, their talents, quirks, and even just to be seen and felt in their fleshly individuality. To the extent that this thematicity is diminished, it becomes harder to become neighbor to one another - we're missing the spur that drives loves on, that awakens it in the heart of the lover and draws him to the other.

So, there we have reached the answer to our question - and it is, paradoxically, no more than a more fundamental question. Just as Christ's parable sort of threw the question back upon the questioner and made him look in the law of love to discern whether he was a good neighbor to others, so must we return to the basics and find a new beginning to looking at the social order. Let's start where Chesterton did: with our neighbor.
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