Who Is My "Neighbor" in a Globally-Connected World?

Kony ’12. It seemed like a good idea at the time. For a day, I was inspired that perhaps change can happen if enough people want it to happen. I believed that we could stop a man who has been kidnapping, raping, murdering, and pillaging his way through Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan for a quarter century by raising such a large global outcry that he would be captured and things would be magically fixed. I was ready to buy the kit, ready to spread the word, ready to join the rallies, ready to help create the groundswell to sweep Joseph Kony out of power and into prison.

Then, within a couple days, as is often the case, cooler heads prevailed on me. These articles raise the issues more eloquently and poignantly than I can, so I’ll let the authors speak for themselves. I’ll just say this, creating awareness will not magically bring justice, and it is the height of pride to believe that North Americans can simply throw $30 apiece at a complex issue and expect it will go away. We create more problems than we solve when we buy into the “white savior” swooping in to solve the world’s problems overnight myth.

But far from letting me off the hook, this whole chain of events has forced me to do some deep soul-searching. Why did I care about this issue in the first place? Did I choose it because it was expedient, just a couple clicks here and there necessary? Did the beauty and artistry of the movie manipulate my emotions and bypass my judgement? Did I choose it because it was a sexy issue that would make me look good if I supported it? Did I choose it out of a sense of good old-fashioned Christian guilt? Did I choose it because of my personal battle with the need to “do” and not just “be”? Did I even really care about the people involved or was it just an issue to me?

The truth is, I’m not ready to invest in Uganda long-term. I have no plans to continually give to the cause of rebuilding Uganda. I’m not going to fly over there and get to know the people for whom this is a daily reality and not just the flavor of the week. I saw a movie, was moved, and in effect, pressed the “like” button on the issue. Because all I could promise was solidarity. I couldn’t promise commitment.

And this is the constant dilemma of our globally-connected society. If we cared about every issue we’re aware of enough to throw our weight behind it we’d soon succumb to compassion fatigue. We were not designed to bear the weight of the world like Atlas. And yet, there is a greater danger in the polar opposite: not throwing our weight behind any issue. Apathy is the imitation of death, and the ultimate surrender. So how do we decide what is worth spending our time, energy, money, blood, sweat, tears, gifts, and talents on?

I think one way to get at the answer to this question is to rephrase it and ask, who is my neighbor? You’ll recognize that this very question was asked of Jesus in Luke 10. He responded with the parable of the good Samaritan:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘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.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

There are a lot of things I could say about this passage, but allow me to make three observations related to this discussion:

1. Jesus always prioritizes the person who is immediately in need in front of us.

Call it triage if that’s helpful. If donating to a cause will take something away from someone in more immediate need, you should give it to the person more immediately in need whom you can most directly help at that time (especially if that person is in your physical vicinity). This may mean that you choose to buy groceries for a neighbor who can’t afford them (as someone in my church recently did for a couple struggling young men) rather than donating to an overseas ministry like Invisible Children (if you can afford to do both, then more power to you).

Here’s a practical negative example from my own life. As I was driving to my church to feed the homeless in Chicago with a group of volunteers, I passed a family broken down on the side of the road about a block from my house. I was running late, so I didn’t stop. I think it’s pretty clear that I should have stopped and risked missing the van to Chicago.

2. Jesus expects us to do the work to understand the nature of the need and let that shape our response.

A lot of the criticism being leveled at the Kony ’12 movement is that it misunderstands the nature of the need. Perhaps the money being used to raise awareness and fund making posters and movies and bracelets would be better spent by the people on the ground in Uganda who are rebuilding the country. Furthermore, many feel that military action against Kony would only lead to more bloodshed (as it has in the past), and that there are other, better ways to bring peace and renewal to the region.

For another example, it’s easy to throw money at a homeless person, but often that is not what that person needs. That doesn’t mean you pass up the homeless person and do nothing. Perhaps sharing a meal with them, or buying them a public transportation pass, or simply hearing their story and letting them know you value them as a human created in the image of God is more in line with what they need.

3. Jesus expects us to see it to completion.

“Completion” will mean different things in different contexts. Sometimes, you will be able to solve the problem completely, such as when you help someone change a flat tire. Sometimes, “completion” will mean handing someone or something off to someone who can better help and then following-up later. Sometimes it will mean committing yourself to pursuing a solution to an issue long-term, and perhaps even moving to be closer to the center of the issue.

There is a place for donating money to causes, but we are responsible to know where our money is going and carefully select those who will steward it well (after all we are only stewards of it ourselves). There are several organizations that can help you choose the right one. If you’ll allow me to indulge in some self-promotion for a moment, Christianity Today published a couple helpful articles on the Church’s role in fighting global poverty and the effectiveness of popular methods that are generating lots of helpful responses.

So, who is my neighbor?

I want to humbly submit that our primary responsibility is to the neighbors God puts in our way daily. That may be the neighbor we regularly see or the neighbor we only see once in a lifetime. We have to be ready to drop everything to help when the need arises.

Our secondary responsibility is to the neighbors we “choose.” These are the tricky ones. These are the ones we may never see face-to-face: the sponsored children, the orphans, the refugees, the political prisoners, the persecuted minorities, the survivors of war, the hungry, the poor, the foreigners. They are tricky because they can become faceless masses or simply remain a face on a postcard. They can be a source of smug satisfaction (if we do something for them) or vague, relentless guilt (if we don’t). The temptation is to simply throw money at them to solve their problems. But they are more than their problems. They are people. If we decide to help them, we must commit to understand their situation. We cannot know our neighbors’ needs unless we know our neighbors.

All this to say, if you decide to give to Invisible Children and support the cause of Kony ’12, do it with my blessing. It would be wonderful to see a man with a shockingly warped mind who is guilty of such heart-wrenching atrocities be brought to justice. But if you do give, please be sure you know why you are doing it. Bringing Kony to justice will not be as quick, simple, and violence-free as the movie implies. We see but through a glass darkly, and do not know the full repercussions of bringing down a warlord (see Iraq/Afghanistan). Ultimately vengeance and justice are in the Lord’s hands. We are simply called to love.

(photocredit)

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2 comments

  1. You raise some difficult questions about the scope of "neighbor." On one hand, we can't help everyone, and I feel like I'm daily bombarded by a gazillion needs in the world. It makes a lot more sense to prioritize the needs that are on our doorstep. On the other hand, we live in an age where we can largely control who comes across our path by choosing where we live and what we do.Since technology allows more people to "cross our paths", it would seem that they too are our "neighbors"–but then, how do we decide whom to help and how? As you say, though, I think learning to be sensitive to the needs that are physically around us is a good start…

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