On Becoming a Neighbor

Mr. Rogers is my hero. He epitomizes the type of person I would like to be. Watch any clip of him on his show or on some talk show and it quickly becomes evident he overflows with compassion and grace and kindness. You get the sense that he rarely if ever thinks about himself before others. He is so fully emptied of himself he can fully see other people, their needs and their beauty. He is the ultimate neighbor. My political philosophy is changing more and more into the neighborliness exemplified by Mr. Rogers.

My previous political philosophy, let’s call it a Reaganesque conservationism, contained two key assumptions. The change to my current philosophy, let’s call it…a something quite a bit different (and much easily defined), came about with the abandonment of these assumptions. I don’t know when said abandonment happened. It wasn’t a particular moment, more a series of moments or a gradual incline. It really was a metamorphosis, with all that implies. All I can really say is that, at some point, I realized the lenses through which I viewed world were distorting everything, trammeling my ability to see my neighbor.

The first assumption was that success/prosperity are directly related to hard work. Those that advance are those who work hard, and those who don’t work hard don’t advance. Fact is, there are so many factors outside of human control that either keep people in poverty or catapult them to wealth. Some people face hurdles that others don’t. Some people have advantages that others don’t. The playing field is far from level. At this point in history (at least in America) equality of opportunity doesn’t exist. The one truth that had a (if not the) primary role in shattering this assumption was that of our racialized society, but that topic deserves a whole post (so come back in a few weeks for it).

The other big assumption was that financial/material wealth/prosperity were the best standards by which to measure success. If the GDP (or some other metric) was up, then we were doing fine. Eh, not quite. It’s not that such measurements are bad, or that wealth/prosperity is bad. What’s bad is that to prioritize them more often than not means to the sacrifice most people’s general well-being (or, shall we say, welfare). History is replete with examples of those in power choosing to ignore the suffering of large groups of people for the sake of financial/material wealth/prosperity. This doesn’t have to be done out of greed for personal gain. Many times the people holding this philosophy are “good” people with “noble” motivations. Yet, the fact remains that an emphasis on material wealth above all else almost invariably leaves many people on the outside.

Giving up on these assumptions has led me to prioritize neighborliness, which I define as seeking what’s truly good for your neighbor whether or not such actions are good for you. Understanding what’s good for your neighbor means actually seeing and hearing them. We might not always be able to walk a mile in their shoes. We can, however, understand that their life experience might be drastically different than ours. We can look for how the policies that bring us benefit affect them. Any policy that helps me but harms my neighbor is bad policy.

Along with prioritizing neighborliness I’ve come to is valuing flourishing over wealth. Flourishing is a much broader and, frankly, harder to measure status. You can’t really define flourishing in year-over-year growth because it involves too many intangibles. It’s about physical and spiritual and mental well-being, and none of those are easily quantifiable. You can, however, identify those things that prevent flourishing. Although there isn’t really a direct connection between wealth and happiness, there is one between poverty and unhappiness. I’m not saying that flourishing is equivalent to happiness; I am saying that unhappiness is an obstruction of flourishing. A similar equivalence is a play with physical health. Healthy people aren’t necessary happy, but unhealthy people are much more likely to be unhappy. Thus, ill-health can be an impediment to flourishing.

So how then do we seek to help others to flourish? How then do we apply neighborliness to our political decisions? We do this by helping people get out of poverty and out of unhealthiness (I’d probably also add helping people get a good education, but I don’t want this little essay to spiral too far out of control). As far as poverty goes, there’s two main types of hurdles: those life throws at people (such as sickness or job loss due to changing technology) and those those in power through at people (such as systematized racism). The former we can address through publicly funded welfare programs (food stamps and housing assistance), the later through government intervention (the Civil Rights Acts and anti-discrimination laws). In both cases the underlying assumption is that poverty is not solely the fault of the individual or family. In both cases the institution best positioned helping people is the government (whether that be local or state or federal will depend on the situation). I don’t think that position is very controversial when it comes to civil rights. It is when it comes to social welfare programs. In the past I’d be strongly opposed to “government handouts”. Such a stance came more from ideology than from compassion. It wasn’t that I wasn’t compassionate; it was that my ideology kept me from truly seeing my neighbor and the challenges they faced. Ideologies tend to give us tunnel vision, which is almost the exact opposite from the prophetic vision Scripture gives us.

The key here is that we’re focusing on the “least of these”, those with the most hurdles in their lives. It may well be that flourishing happens as we help those less fortunate than ourselves. The Bible says that to whom much has been given much more shall be required. This isn’t about redistributing wealth. It’s about each of us realizing that none of us are really on our own. We all need each other. We all rely on our neighbors in innumerable ways. And we’ve all been given the means to help others. Even the widow is given a mite through which she can love and help her neighbor. The bottom line is that material prosperity isn’t the bottom line. The type of flourishing I’m talking about comes about through sacrifice. We lift others up sometimes at great cost to ourselves.

I’m sure all this will strike many as an ambiguous and idealistic (maybe even Utopian) goal. I’m okay with that. I’ll admit that much of this philosophy is motivated by my disillusionment with Capitalism (which isn’t to say I’m opposed to a free market, but that’s…a whole different conversation). I am greatly distressed by how dehumanizing it can be. The drive for profit and wealth has led us to exploit so many groups. I cannot reconcile such exploitation with the Biblical command to love my neighbor. It’s much easier for our vision to tell us what’s wrong than to tell us what’s best. So I’m choosing to build my politics on the love and compassion and sacrifice that is integral to my faith. I’m choosing to avoid ideologies as much as possible, and focus instead on people. I’m choosing to defend a culture of life that seeks to assist people from the womb to the tomb. I’m choosing to embrace Mr. Roger’s philosophy that our neighbors make the world a better place simply by them being them, not because of any financial benefit they give to me. I’m choosing to be a neighbor.

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