One of the most wonderful things about living in America is sharing a small part of the planet with other Americans. We are a friendly lot, generous to a fare-thee-well, optimistic, gregarious and silly. On the other hand, one of the most difficult things about living in America is living with other Americans. We are conceited, haughty, cranky, rude, self-centered and uptight.
It’s like Charles De Gaulle said: “France would be a glorious country if it weren’t for the French.”
Some of us sat in our Lazy-Boy recliners (cost: about $300, give or take) munching on potato chips ($2 a bag) scoping up the ranch dip ($2 a pint) while watching our big-screen plasma TV ($1000) and hoisting a cold one or two ($10 a six pack) and congratulating ourselves that we sent $5 to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Yet an uncountable number of us called the local Red Cross relief efforts and volunteered their time and talent, actually flying into the nearest airport (one that was open) or driving thousands of miles and vowing to stay until the mess is cleaned up.
Others of us watched the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the closest thing they said to a prayer for the victims was thanking their lucky stars that they didn’t live in southern Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama. Then they simply turned over and went back to sleep.
The only time some of us came alive throughout the entire week was while watching film of the folks taking diapers and water out of the corner Walgreen’s. And we only woke up then so we could be furious, or not. As one pundit put it, if white folks were carrying things out of the store, then they were taking what they needed for their families; if they were black, they were looters.
But millions upon millions of us cried with the mother holding her dying baby, the one who cried out, “Can’t somebody help me?” and offered rosaries and masses, as well as dollars, to help the fortunes of the people whose faces we will never forget.
Thomas Merton wrote a wonderful essay on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” based on the story of the Good Samaritan. It reminds us that our neighbors are not just the kindly Joneses next door, not the ones we keep up with, but the ones who offer to baby-sit our plants and water our dogs when we go to visit the grandkids. We do the same for them. The Joneses are our neighbors, but Christ wants us to broaden our vision a little. In fact, He wants us to broaden our vision a lot.
In the essay, Merton helps us to do that by giving special attention to the question the lawyer asked Jesus when he told the parable. It might be a good essay to contemplate as we see so many of our neighbors suffering.
Merton first reminds us that while the two words “good” and “Samaritan” roll easily off our tongue, in Christ’s time, Samaritans were judged as anything but good. They were, in fact, the bad guys. They were considered impure. So the fact that the Samaritan was the hero of the story was probably a hard pill for some of the disciples to swallow. It was certainly hard for the lawyer to accept.
In the essay, Merton reminds us that the lawyer, the man who asked the question, was more interested in making sure he obeyed the letter of the law than loving anyone, neighbor or not. He didn’t understand that we are to love everybody; he only wanted to love those that he was required to love. Merton tells us that if we love with restriction, we really aren’t loving at all. If we love someone because of some qualification, because they wear a certain type of clothing or speak a certain language, that’s not love.
Christ answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with this story largely because he knew the man was really saying: “Give me a description of the people I have to love, so I’ll know who I can ignore.” Christ doesn’t let him off the hook. He says essentially, “Go and do the same.”
We must love everyone unconditionally. That’s a tall order.