Who Is My Neighbor?

by Spencer Perkins

Stripped of all the theological debates and boiled down to its raw essence, Christianity and Christians will be judged by two actions: how much we love God and how well we demonstrate that by loving our neighbor. This is Christianity in a nutshell. But pushing these two great commands to the back pages of our practical theology has allowed Christians to join in with the world in separating along racial lines.

A clearer understanding of the priority these two commandments deserve should have us scrambling to figure out creative ways to demonstrate our love for one another. Understanding Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” should motivate us to show special love to those who don’t love us. Growing up in Mississippi made the “neighbor” application very simple for me: I needed to accept the fact that God intended me to love even “white folks.” Until Christians can admit to the importance Jesus put on loving our neighbor—until we can admit that not to do so weakens our gospel— it’s unlikely that we will go out of our way to “prove neighbor.” Instead, we will continue to pass by on the other side.

One of the oldest strategies of warfare is to divide and conquer. Once you have isolated your enemy, you have robbed him of his strength. Then you can do just about whatever you please with him.

Christians have used a strategy similar to this in our attempts to deal with the hard teachings of Jesus. We have separated basic principles of Scripture that God never intended to be separated, consequently robbing them of their intended power.
The Bible is divided into two broad categories: people and their relationship to God, and people and their relationships to other people. Everything in Scripture falls under one or the other of these broad categories. In the third chapter of Genesis, man and woman broke their relationship with God by disobeying him and eating the fruit. In Genesis 4 we broke with each other when Cain killed his brother Abel. The rest of the Bible is a record of God’s attempts to reconcile the human race back to himself and to reconcile us to each other.

If you had to sum up in one word the point God has been trying to communicate to the human race throughout history, that word could very easily be reconciliation. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.”

Once Jesus was approached by a religious lawyer who wanted him to separate the two basic thrusts of the gospel (Mt 22:34-40). He challenged Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Notice that this lawyer was looking for one commandment. If the two could be separated, this would have been the time to do it. This was Jesus’ opportunity to say once and for all what the point of Jewish religion was.

The first part of Jesus’ response was expected. “‘Love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” We have a tendency to want to stop here. We hear many sermons that concentrate on this one commandment. But Jesus did not stop here. Jesus says you can’t reduce the gospel to just “me and God.” There is a second commandment and it is like the first: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then Jesus goes on to make what must be one of the most overlooked statements in Scripture: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Under these two categories falls everything that was taught by Moses and the prophets, and everything that Jesus taught, and everything that was taught by his disciples. Boiling it all down to its raw essence, what God wants is for us to love him and love our neighbor.

As I grew up, my parents tended to look at Jesus’ teachings and try to live them—literally. By the time I was in elementary school, I could quote several dozen Bible verses, such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6:31); “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. This is my command: love each other” (Jn 14:23; 15:17); “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). All these verses I could quote from memory, but our unsophisticated understanding of these Scriptures created a quandary for me.

I compared what I saw in the Bible to the reality we blacks lived under in small-town Mississippi. And at a very early age I concluded that it was impossible to be a white Southerner and a Christian. Not because I understood all the different theologies and interpretations of Scripture, and not because we had some special kind of black theology, but because of what I read in the Bible. Since I saw in the Scriptures that if you loved God, you would love your neighbor, and since I knew the white folks didn’t love us, it was easy to conclude that there were very few Christians south of the Mason-Dixon line—especially in Mississippi.

Separating loving God from loving your neighbor had cost white Christians a valuable witness to the power of God, at least to the black community.

A while back, I was talking to an old man who lived in a Christian community in New York. This group of Christians takes the gospel as seriously as any group of believers I know. He asked me how they could get black folks to join their community.

“Why is that so important to you?” I asked.

He responded, “If we had whites and blacks living and worshiping together as brothers and sisters, we would make a much stronger witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

This old man understood how our lack of visible love for each other compromises our witness of the gospel to an unbelieving world.

Only five of every one hundred black Americans belong to a majority-white Protestant denomination. The number of whites who belong to majority-black denominations is even smaller. These numbers illustrate how hard it is for even the people of God to practice the Christian “prime directive”—love your neighbor as you love yourself. Maybe the problem is that we have misunderstood Jesus’ definition of neighbor.

A PARABLE FOR TODAY

Let’s say you live in a mostly white neighborhood. You hardly deal with people of other races. You work hard, and you teach your children to love God and other people.

Now suppose you hear about an unusual teacher/activist who is going around preaching that same simple message you teach your kids: to love God and other people. But this teacher spends his time with poor people and members of the other race. You agree with what he teaches, but his lifestyle makes you uncomfortable.

Then one day you hear he’s in town, so you go to hear him teach. Afterward, you approach him to ask a question. Your question is probing and goes straight to the heart of the matter. You believe that his answer will probably be theologically unsound, so that you will embarrass him, discount his lifestyle and in the process affirm your own. “How can I be sure that when I die I will go to heaven?” you ask, going straight for the bottom line.

Instead of answering, he asks you an elementary question. “What did they teach you in church?”

You reply from memory, from the first principles you learned way back in Sunday school: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

He smiles and says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and when you die you will go to heaven.”

But you feel a little slighted. His answer was too simple. You think, “If we agree, why then does his lifestyle still make me feel so uncomfortable?” And you realize that the difference must have something to do with the “neighbor” part.

Needing to justify your own existence, you decide to probe a little deeper. So you ask the question—the one whose answer was as ignored in Jesus’ day as it is today: “And who is my neighbor?”

His reply comes in the form of a story.

“One evening a man was driving from his suburban home to his downtown office. Because he was pressed for time he decided to drive the most direct route, which led right through the roughest part of the inner city. It just so happened that while driving through this mostly black part of town he had a flat tire. Because his white face stuck out like a sore thumb in this part of town, he was tempted to continue driving on the flattened tire but decided it would only take a minute to change it. While he was changing the tire, though, a gang of black youths attacked him, stripped and beat him and left him half dead.

“Now it happened that a preacher on his way to evening service also had to drive through this dangerous part of town. When he saw the car up on a jack he slowed down, and then he saw the man slumped over the steering wheel. But the preacher hurried on his way, deciding that it would be too dangerous to stop.

“A little while later another man, who had been a Christian all his life and was well respected in his community, also saw the injured man, but he too decided not to get involved.

“Finally, an old black man driving a beat-up pickup truck drove up and stopped, pulled the injured white man out of the car, laid him in the back of his truck and drove him to the hospital. He paid the hospital bill and then continued on his way, never seeing the injured man again.”

His story finished, the teacher then asks you, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who was attacked by the gang?”

You answer, “The one who had mercy on him.”

And he says to you, “Go and do likewise.” (See Lk 10:25-37 for the original version of this story.)

When Jesus was asked, “Who is the neighbor I’m supposed to love like myself?,” he didn’t say “Your family,” or “The people of your neighborhood—people who are like you.”

For all practical purposes, Jesus turned the question into a racial issue. It was no coincidence that Jesus picked a Samaritan to demonstrate the meaning of neighbor to a Jewish expert in the law.

Jews didn’t see the Samaritans as their neighbors. Samaritans were half-breeds, the scum of the earth, outcasts. The Jews believed that if a Jewish person’s shadow happened to touch a Samaritan’s shadow, it would contaminate the Jew. If a Samaritan woman entered a Jewish village, the entire village became unclean.

But in this story Jesus says that our neighbors are especially those people who ignore us, those people who separate themselves from us, those people who are afraid of us, those people we have the most difficulty loving and those people we feel don’t love us. These are our neighbors. In Matthew 5:46 Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” Anybody can do that.

Christianity doesn’t require any power when its only challenge is to do something that already comes naturally. But it will take a powerful gospel—a gospel with guts—to enable us to love across all the barriers we erect to edify our own kind and protect us from our insecurities.

Sometimes, in my weak moments, I wish the lawyer who asked that question two thousand years ago had never opened his big mouth. But now, because he did, I am without excuse. I cannot plead ignorance to the question of race. Now, because of Jesus’ answer, I have to go beyond my comfort zone and embrace neighbors I would rather do without.

The answer to the question “And who is my neighbor?” has much to say about the priority we place on loving people who are different from ourselves, especially as it relates to our eternal future. Hidden behind Jesus’ simple lesson on helping others is an intense spotlight aimed right at one of our most serious blind spots—race.

DO YOU RECOGNIZE YOUR NEIGHBOR?

It doesn’t take much imagination for each of us to figure out who Jesus would use as an example of “neighbor” in our own towns and cities.

For an Israeli, how about a Palestinian?

For an Arab, how about a Jew?

For a rich white, how about a black welfare mother?

For a poor white, how about a middle-class black who got where he is through affirmative action?

For a black male, how about a white male—better yet, a pickup-driving, gunrack-toting, tobacco-chewing, baseball-cap-wearing white man who still refers to a black man as “boy”?

For a feminist, how about an insensitive, domineering male chauvinist?

For a suburban white family, how about the new black or Hispanic family that moved in down the street?

For all of us, how about the unmotivated, undisciplined, uneducated poor? Or an AIDS victim who contracted AIDS not through a transfusion but through homosexual activity or intravenous drug use?

Who would Jesus use as the neighbor if he were speaking to you?

As I mentioned earlier, when I was growing up I used to ask my parents if loving your neighbor as yourself meant we had to love white people, too. I’m sure you can imagine the answer I wanted to hear. But they would say loving your neighbor meant especially loving white folks. Even though sometimes I could see them struggling with the answer, especially after my father was almost beaten to death by white men, they still managed to say and demonstrate to me that loving my neighbor did mean loving white folks.

How are you answering this question to your children— and to the world?

Maybe the question is not being asked in words, but believe me, it’s being asked. Maybe you are not answering in words, but you are answering—if not in words, then surely in deeds. As the old saying goes, “Our lives speak so loudly that the world can’t hear what we are saying.”

Jesus said our witness, our credibility to the world, is demonstrated by our love for each other. There is no greater witness to the genuineness of our gospel.

Think about it. If, because of Christ, blacks and whites could bridge our country’s greatest schism and live out a model of reconciliation that has not been attained by any other force, the world would have to ask, “Why?”

To many blacks the idea of racial reconciliation, given all our problems, is low on the priority list. But here’s a sobering thought for blacks who are still dealing with unresolved anger at white America: Our forgiveness from God hinges on our ability to forgive others (Mt 6:14-15).

On the other hand, for many whites the idea of intentional racial reconciliation may sound extrabiblical. But remember that the “And who is my neighbor?” question clarified the answer to the question “What must I do to have eternal life?” Living out the answer could have eternal significance.

THE FRUIT OF WORSHIP

At the Lausanne II Conference on World Evangelism, Indian church leader Vinay Samuel voiced this concern. He said,

The most serious thing is the image around the world that evangelicals are soft on racial injustice.... One sign and wonder, biblically speaking, that alone can prove the power of the gospel is that of reconciliation. …Hindus can produce as many miracles as any Christian miracle worker. Islamic saints in India can produce and duplicate every miracle that has been produced by Christians. But they cannot duplicate the miracle of black and white together, of racial injustice being swept away by the power of the gospel. . . . Our credibility is at stake. . . . If we are not able to establish our credibility in this area we have not got the whole gospel. In fact we have not got a proper gospel at all. (Lausanne II Conference on World Evangelism, 1989)

I experienced the truth of Vinay Samuel’s plea in 1989, when I had the opportunity to take part in a remarkable worship service. There were about six thousand Christians present, of whom about 5,990 were white. People spoke in tongues and danced and prayed in the Spirit. They sang beautiful songs about how wonderful Jesus is and how Jesus is the answer to all the problems of their country.

But it was difficult for me to take part in this worship, because the service was held in a “whites-only” area just outside Johannesburg, South Africa. I had just come back from visiting one of the all-black townships only a few miles away. I had seen with my own eyes the extreme poverty in the black townships and the abundant wealth of the white minority. I had seen naked black children rummaging through garbage piles in search of food, while only a few miles away white children were being served by black servants. I had seen very clearly how wealth was divided according to the color of one’s skin. I had seen how the laws were designed to support this concept, and how South African Christianity had no effect on it.

Though the majority of the white Christians we talked with in South Africa could demonstrate outward “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, these signs did not translate into concern for the desperate situation of their thirty million black brothers and sisters. Six thousand white Christians, with hands raised, all calling on the name of God, and yet they were not demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit toward their black brothers and sisters. How could this be? If the God they were worshiping gave all this his approval, then there was no way I could bow down to that God.

It is estimated that 80 percent of white South Africans claim to be born-again Christians. As a black man, I have to thank God that we don’t have more of such “Christians” in the United States. What I experienced on my trip revived an old question of my youth: What is a Christian, anyway? The Bible is full of sayings like the ones I learned when I was a child:

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20). “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 ]n 3:17-18).

Is it possible to have beautiful, authentic worship experiences yet not lift a finger to oppose the injustice that systematically oppresses a whole group of people? It would stand to reason that if our worship of a just and holy God does not lead us to confront the evils in our communities, our cities and our nations, then we are deceiving ourselves when we think we are spending time with the God revealed on the pages of the Bible. If we were spending long periods of time praying, singing and worshiping in the presence of this God, then some of his qualities of love, justice, forgiveness and self-sacrifice would certainly rub off on us.

A world confused about race needs to see a gospel with guts enough to break the idols of race, not only through our words but also through our deeds.

Spencer Perkins
Spencer Perkins (1954-1998), along with ministry partner Chris Rice, directed Reconcilers Fellowship and edited Reconcilers magazine. This article is reprinted from their book More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel with permission of InterVarsity Press.

Originally published in Priscilla Papers, Volume 14, Number 1 Winter 2000, pp. 6-9 ISSN I 0898-753X