Opinion: I will choose my neighbor; please join me

Heidi Wetzler: ‘I encourage you to join me in giving some thought to the challenge of choosing your neighbor over your religion, or your politics, or whatever else you hold sacred’

One of my favorite moments on the big screen is in the movie, Les Miserables. A criminal on the run, Jean Valjean, is welcomed into a church as a safe haven for the night. He is fed and warmed and taken care of … and then proceeds to steal silver from the church and flees. He is picked up by the police the next morning for other reasons, and then they find the silver in his bag. When they present him to the priest with the stolen items – the priest claims he gave them to him. And then proceeds to give him more. The police reluctantly end up letting him go free. This act of undeserved grace changes the course of this man’s life forever.   

Heidi Wetzler
Heidi Wetzler

For some reason, this scene came to my mind after I visited a new church recently and the pastor spoke a message I didn’t know I was thirsty for. While it wasn’t a brand new idea for me, it did give me a jolt, and then the energy turned into a sort of wide-eyed naivete filled with hope. Whether you are a person of faith, or a person who believes your life ends with your last breath, the idea I heard that day has the potential to radically change your relationships with the people in your world – and ultimately the world itself. So why don’t we seem to find it important enough to walk this talk? 

I propose because it offers a challenge to self, and the self-absorbed habits we as a society enjoy. It threatens the self-ascribed power we possess at our keyboards. I suggest that the manic state of affairs our country is experiencing today has actually less to do with the supposed issues at stake, and quite frankly more to do with our own idea of self-importance. We have a literal world full of people who tout “love” as their most noble goal. But often times, in an effort to love certain people, others are unloved in the process. 

I can no longer keep up with all of the issues of our day and the never-ending fighting that fills all media platforms. It is exhausting. And confusing. And depressing. Everyone believes that their fight is righteous. And in most instances, it’s quite probable that all sides stem from a good intention. But, ironically, the moral dilemma sits squarely in the act of the fight itself. In your final moments on this earth, who among you believes you will look back on your life and beam with satisfaction at all the time you spent getting in the last word with individuals you never met. Or, would you rather remember how you lived well with the people you knew, the good things you did for others, the fun adventures and silly moments, and the connections you formed with those you are leaving behind. 

The quote I want to share from the teaching that day comes from Barbara Brown Taylor. It reads “The only clear line I draw these days is this: when my religion tries to come in between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor …” 

Now you can define religion as “the belief in and worship of God or gods,” and you can also define it as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.”  

In other words, this idea applies to everyone.  And unfortunately, it is a concept that is foreign to many. 

So what does it mean to “choose your neighbor?” I don’t believe it has anything to do with watering down your convictions, but more to do with choosing how you decide to treat (or dare I say love) your neighbor in spite of those convictions. Of course, the term “neighbor” is meant to encompass everyone you come into contact with, not just those people with whom you share a property line.  

I have close friends from all over the political spectrum. Is it easy? No, at times. Is it worth it? Absolutely. I could choose to get knee deep in the appearance of hypocrisy in the ideologies of those I disagree with. Or spout 100 reasons why I’m right regarding this issue or that. But then they would have their own 100 reasons and stones to cast, and then we would end up in a stalemate, cite irreconcilable differences in our friendship, and I would ultimately lose out. I would lose out on the goodness I believe is inside each one of them. And the unique gift that is each person I know. But today, in so many cases, our neighbor’s goodness is overshadowed by the idea that our own ideas are more important than their person. Our causes are more righteous than their human existence. Our ideological passions often know no humility.  

I’m not coming at this idea from a place of immunity. I can get entrenched in my “good intentions” just as much as the next person. But I CAN say that I continue to try to do better.  

I don’t suppose that a second quote I learned of from the same author will be a popular suggestion either. But I encourage you to let it rumble around in your gut.  “The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.” Oomph. That’s something to chew on. I would imagine we all long for a life of meaning. Admittedly there are a ton of worthy, meaningful causes to become absorbed in and one often has to be mono focused in order to break through the apathy and get good things done. But the question that slapped me in the face at that moment was at what point does the legacy of each of our lives begin to be sacrificed by the manner in which we are involved in the fight of the day, however noble that fight may seem.  At what point is the cost to our character, greater than the benefit.  

Now going back to the thought-provoking scene in Les Mis – in that moment, the priest was able to see the bigger picture, and the value – and potential – in choosing his neighbor, over society’s idea of justice.  Jean Valjean went on to live a life of integrity and goodness – in large part due to the radically unexpected treatment he received by the priest. It’s an idea that should give us all pause. It doesn’t often come naturally. Of course, I’m not suggesting that thieves and criminals have no consequence. This particular example is more figurative than literal.  But maybe we can start with holding our tongue just once. Or better yet, choosing to chat with someone over coffee instead of over the internet. Or challenging ourselves to see the best in someone, rather than the worst. It should be a concerning situation for all that no matter what president or congress person is in office, the opposing party can no longer find a single good thing that he/she has done. It’s an absorption of self to infinity and beyond. 

As I’ve said in this space before, there are a great many more than two sides to every issue. The way we are strongly advised by our talking heads to proceed to our respective political corners is, I believe, the greatest dumbing down of our people that we have ever experienced. The political divide grows wider and deeper and meaner every day. And how many of us feel the quality of our lives is improving because of it? I encourage you to join me in giving some thought to the challenge of choosing your neighbor over your religion, or your politics, or whatever else you hold sacred. Open your hand instead of your mouth.  I would more than love to hear how it goes. 

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