This morning, I read the following from the autobiography of an American slave, Harriet Jacobs, and it elicited an audible gasp. My wife Janet had the same response when I read it to her:
We all know that the memory of a faithful slave [the author’s deceased mother] does not avail much to save her children from the auction block. After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter, a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that man should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.
–From Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, pg. 10-11 (bolding mine)
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about neighborliness lately. We recently watched (twice) the wonderful documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” This theme of Fred Rogers’ famous children’s show was not only a question, but an invitation and a plea. “I want to consider you my neighbor. Won’t you consider me yours?” Notice how Mr. Rogers has ceded all his power to the listener: ‘I’ve made my choice. I’m drawing my circle large enough that you fit inside it. Won’t you include me in your circle, too?’
We have a Teacher in this, of course. Jesus’ drew a circle that encompassed the whole world.
Our nation and our world—even our communities—have a checkered past when it comes to neighborliness: who’s in the circle and who’s beyond the pale. Who to trust. Who to fear. Some might say that today’s mid-term election is a referendum on our nation’s collective neighborliness.
Unlike that tall, lanky adult man on the TV screen speaking to little children, it is stunningly easy for us to forget how much power we intrinsically hold, how uneven is the power balance, how much we hold the strings like Harriet’s owner did, to decide when to bequeath or withhold blessings.
Mr. Rogers shed his adult clothing to don sneakers and a cardigan sweater (a fashion faux pas for which I never forgave him!). He recognized like few others how much even our clothing is another proclamation of our power. Having such an aversion myself in that era to cardigan sweaters, I should have at least admired how much Fred was purposely debasing himself for the sake of his audience. His entire ethos was that of a servant, of subservience to the less powerful in his midst.
As is well-known, Fred Rogers was ordained as a Presbyterian minister into the Pittsburgh diocese specifically with a call to television. While it was a unique placement, he seemed to take very literally the universal admonition in Philippines 2:5-7a:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant [NIV–the NRSV uses “slave”]
It’s interesting the scripture verses that jump out to some while others pass over them quickly. Harriet’s mistress—her owner—was able to teach Harriet all about neighbors and the Golden Rule while not for a minute considering these precepts when it came to her slaves—her property. This mental trick of dehumanizing the other is an essential tool in ignoring Jesus’ clearest and perhaps most radical teachings.
So, who is my neighbor? We ask the same question the lawyer asked Jesus so many centuries ago (Luke 10:25cf). It’s a very lawyerly inquiry: How do I parse this command to love the other so I know who is in my circle of concern and who I don’t have to love and welcome into the circle?
Fred Rogers challenges us with a different approach entirely. His is a radical question–posed not to himself but to his viewer. Mr. Rogers has already settled Jesus’ challenge in his own heart: Whosoever is watching this show is surely my neighbor, surely belongs in “my neighborhood.”
So instead, his eternal supplication is to the other person: You are most welcome here. Won’t you be my neighbor?
That’s a precept not only worth teaching, but actually living.