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Who is My Neighbor? Being a Good Samaritan in a Connected World

Steve Moore
Published by NavPress in 2011

The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door

Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon
Published by Baker Books in 2012

The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology

Slavoj Žižek, Eric Santner, Kenneth Reinhard
Published by University of Chicago Press in 2006

Jeffrey P. Bouman is the Director of the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College.

My neighbor Don strolled by my house one early evening last June while I was out front in my urban neighborhood, reading the newspaper. We shot the breeze, talked about meeting new neighbors, the weather, the ethics of drone strikes, and Don’s summer pace teaching piano lessons, before he went on with his evening walk. June evenings in my neighborhood afford a clearer window than other months into who my neighbors are and what it means to be a good neighbor. The annual Fourth of July neighborhood parade brings us together, and each year someone once again has to walk the neighborhood making sure new neighbors know that the parade is coming, and reminding old neighbors about our annual practice of organizing a potluck in someone’s backyard. I’m that guy on my street, Calvin Avenue, so perhaps it is fitting that I spent this past year pondering the deeper questions about the second great commandment.

Summer always turns to autumn, and then inevitably, to winter during which, in my neighborhood this year, snow fell almost daily during the entire month leading up to Christmas. My first rule of being a good neighbor is to keep your sidewalks shoveled clear and well in the wintertime. This is my hard and fast rule. Pay attention to this rule, and you will know what it means to “neighbor” well. No snow in your forecast? Translate for your climate. The fundamental rule remains the same – a good neighbor thinks of others first, and acts on that thinking. Being a good neighbor is a corollary of the golden rule, is it not? Treat others as you would have them treat you, and you are well on your way to understanding this basic human commandment.

Another good way to remember what it means to be a good neighbor also always comes in the wintertime, at Christmas. The gospel writer John, paraphrased by the Bible scholar Eugene Peterson in The Message, said that “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (emphasis added). Christ moved into our earth-neighborhood when he took on flesh and became human, the event we celebrate each year as the church year begins, with Advent leading us to Christmas. A neighbor, first of all, is present among neighbors.

My task in this essay is to review three books that delve more deeply into questions about who neighbors are, what it means to be a neighbor, the art of neighboring, and how the question of the neighbor has been complicated by the horrors of the twentieth century. I tried to do so in a way that fundamentally respects each of the six authors first as neighbors of mine in the global village, and also by appreciating each as differently gifted writers. Drawing on twenty-five years of leadership and mentoring alongside college and university students in faith-based higher education, as well as the past twelve years directing the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College, I bring many different experiences as an intellectual, spiritual, and geographical neighbor to interesting people with fascinating stories.

The three different books, with three different sets of authors, bring three varieties of assumptions to their writing about neighbors and neighborhoods. Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, Denver-area pastors who together wrote The Art of Neighboring (2012), work on the basic assumption that their readers will mostly be living in plotted subdivisions in typical American suburbs, complete with garages and grills, Little Leagues and grass. Lifelong missions leader Steve Moore writes his book Who is My Neighbor? (2010) on the premise that the world is a global village shared by rich and ultra-poor alike with many opportunities to love neighbors with both meaningful service and the good news of the gospel. And Kenneth Reinhard, professor of English at UCLA, Eric Santner, Germanic Studies professor at the University of Chicago, and Slavoj Žižek, Sociology professor at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, together published their book, The Neighbor (2005), mindful of the neighborhood of academics, philosophers, and theologians who wrestle with the massive spiritual, psychological, and basic human questions that have resulted from the bloody and inhumane atrocities committed within the human community, particularly in the twentieth century. Each of these books derives its fundamental question from the biblical injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves found in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (NIV) and repeated in Matthew 22:38-40: “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (NIV). A fundamental question to begin, then, is whether the keeping of this commandment is even possible.

In The Art of Neighboring, the two Denver pastors, Pathak and Runyon suggest that not only is it possible, but it is easier than we sometimes think. Drawing on their experience in recent years bringing neighbors and neighborhoods together throughout the greater Denver area, Pathak and Runyon provide an array of practical guidance for people who want resources and encouragement for getting to know their neighbors. Submitting your story of “neighboring” on their website ( enters you into a drawing to win a sweet new grill (the better to invite your neighbors to share!). They offer suggestions based on the premise that most Americans do not know their neighbors the way they did in a previous age. They suggest developing a map of your neighborhood, finding common areas of interest, like watching or playing sports together, and the simple act of inviting neighbors together for a picnic in someone’s backyard as opportunities to “build genuine relationships right outside your door.” I found their general style accessible and encouraging. As someone who intentionally chose to purchase a home in an older, more urban neighborhood with a diverse community of neighbors, I found most of their examples difficult to apply to my own questions about what it means to be a neighbor on a practical level. My neighbors are new immigrants, older African-American couples, young millennial parents, Eastern European dissidents, professors and bike shop repairmen, engineers and artists. The annual parade and an occasional potluck have brought a few of us together, but sports and cookouts will have a limited reach. So the helpfulness of the book will be restricted by the scope of their target demographic.

The authors do not raise fundamental philosophical questions regarding the nature of how difficult the commandment to love neighbors might be. They assume most American Christians will be coming from the perspective of a post-Enlightenment individualism, and that they will have purchased a suburban home with a two-car attached garage, and are spending most of their leisure time focused on their own children, watching and playing sports. Complex and intractable societal questions regarding race and racism, homophobia, white flight, suburban development and urban decay, materialism, militarism, gender issues and sexism, urban or domestic violence, sustainability and global climate change – and many others – are simply left out of the discussion in a largely successful attempt to offer a simple set of guidelines for the practice of neighboring to a particular population of American Christians. They follow chapter topics such as:

  • Who is my Neighbor?
  • Taking the Great Commandment Seriously The Time Barrier
  • The Fear Factor
  • Moving Down the Line
  • Baby Steps
  • Motives Matter
  • The Art of Receiving
  • The Art of Setting Boundaries The Art of Focusing
  • The Art of Forgiving
  • Better Together

A simple study guide with leading questions for a small group leader is provided for each chapter in the back of the book.

One particularly interesting thread I found valuable was their suggestion that every neighborhood might have in it a “person of peace” (147). Their idea is rooted in the passage in Luke 10 where Jesus sends out seventy-two disciples, and stems from when Jesus instructs the disciples to look for a person of peace in each particular city, and to stay with that person. Their application of the idea seems to be that every neighborhood locale will have such a person, and that these types of people are worth getting to know, especially in the service of sharing the gospel. Especially in neighborhoods with higher than average concentrations of violence, both physical and virtual, this idea could have been explored more deeply. In fact, the book series published over the past several years by the Duke University Center for Reconciliation would be an excellent companion to this idea, particularly the 2011 volume by Sam Wells and Marcia Owens, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence.1

Pathak and Runyon’s idea that there might be a person of peace in each neighborhood implies that neighborhoods, like all groups of people, endure violence and broken relationships, and require reconciliation. They offer one particularly helpful chapter, “The Art of Receiving,” as a set of suggestions for building reciprocal, rather than one-way, relationships. In an example they give, a couple of well-meaning and resource-full neighbors are presented with the challenge of an offer of help from a single mother in their neighborhood who they know to be resource-challenged. They write:

When giving is one-sided, it robs the “needy” one of his dignity, because it makes him dependent. But when giving is two-sided, everyone feels a sense of worth. We need to understand that everyone on our block has something to bring to a relationship. What’s more, good neighboring is not about doing charity work. It’s not simply about doing for others and looking for ways to give and give and give. Rather, good neighboring is about helping to create a sense of community within your neighborhood. It’s about empowering people and breaking down walls. It’s about everybody doing something together for the common good. (121-22)

In Living without Enemies, theologian Sam Wells suggests four models of engagement that put this idea into a simple and valuable framework. He writes about

working for

working with

being for, and

being with others in service and advocacy. (26)

These are important distinctions to understand in the art of neighboring. Wells takes this model a step further in a 2012 essay, “Rethinking Service,” where he suggests that the most important word in the Bible – “the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purpose and destiny for us” – is the word “with.”2 According to Wells, we are tempted to think that the word “for” is the operative word in service and mission, but too often it is simply the way of service that is easier, and requires less of us. “Being with” and “working with” others is much more difficult, but also much closer to the design for service offered in the gospel and the incarnation. So Pathak and Runyon provide an excellent but limited resource for American Christians interested in fulfilling the second great commandment to love our neighbors at the very least by getting to know them. And that is an excellent place to start.

In his book, Who is My Neighbor?, Steve Moore, a lifelong missions advocate and leader in the short-term missions movement, asks what it means to be a neighbor in a world that is increasingly connected and informed. If the question of to whom we are responsible hinges on proximity, urgency, and capacity to respond, then the questions of who our neighbors are, and how we are to be good neighbors, becomes that much more complex. Moore centers his text on the parable Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, commonly referred to as the Good Samaritan parable. Arguing that technological connectivity has changed the landscape of our reality since the Bible was written, Moore suggests that in order to be good neighbors, we have to learn to “zoom in to personalize the needs of others and zoom out to get perspective on the big picture” (18). He uses language adopting our technical reality throughout the book, suggesting a task he describes as “assigning a meaningful page rank to the virtual tsunami of human needs that flood into our lives from every corner of the world” (18). Page-ranking becomes, for Moore, a skill that helps make sense and give order to the chaotic array of brokenness, right in front of us, and brought to us via the Internet and our myriad news outlets.

He suggests a formula for responsibility, adding one’s proximity to the need of others, and the urgency of the others’ need, together with one’s capacity to help with skills and resources equaling our level of responsibility [ proximity + urgency + capacity = responsibility ]. This formula makes sense upon first reading, but Moore quickly raises the stakes by also asking what happens when the needs of others are not only tragic, but also chronic and epidemic. In other words, how are those of us with resources supposed to understand our responsibility with those resources when the needs of the world’s many “others” are so overwhelming in their vastness, their tragic proportions, and their never-ending waves of human and ecological suffering? The technological age in which we live, Moore argues, is filled with the possibility of an awareness of the particularity of human suffering to a degree previously unmatched, and with the effect of paralyzing many in the face of what he calls a “tidal wave of shame and guilt.”

The first section of the book revisits the parable, and introduces readers to the story in depth. Moore summarizes his distillation of the story by saying “God expects us to take the initiative, crossing boundaries and overcoming barriers, to show His mercy by serving others” (34). He suggests that by shifting the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “which of these was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus moves the burden of proof for neighbor identity from the other to ourselves: from a passive to an active question. Similarly, in order to help us deal with the growing immediate awareness of brokenness and injustice in all corners of the globe, Moore suggests an image of our neighborhoods growing bigger, while our world grows smaller to us. Jesus’s invoking of a Samaritan for his story of how to think about being a neighbor was intentional and provocative. Samaritans were invisible and disrespected by those listening to Jesus, and at the same time they served as the perfect example of how radical the suggestions of Jesus were. And according to Moore the term “neighbor” would have been typically used in the Mishnah, the summary of Jewish law, as a term for friend, or to describe a fellow Jew. Jesus tells the story as a way of outmaneuvering his questioners and demonstrating the inadequacies of their understanding of how language and love interact. Moore points out that the way the parable ends, with Jesus asking the question “which of these was a neighbor to the man?” demonstrates the commitment Jesus had to encourage his followers to take the initiative in friendship and in crossing boundaries.

Moore provides another formula from the parable that suggests a progression from awareness to feeling to action. He uses the terms “information,” “compassion,” and “action.” The Samaritan man first saw the injured man, then he took pity on him, and then he went to him. He identifies four common “exit ramps” that generally enable us to avoid the necessary action: intention, deflection, rationalization, and justification. Each of these generally shows up between our experience of compassion and our action, but Moore argues that with enough cases of inaction because of these exit ramp detours, these excuses begin to show up even before the feelings of compassion arrive. He allows that, in the age of Google© and YouTube©, we have the danger of information overload to worry about, and the subsequent experience with what he calls “compassion fatigue.” Compassion fatigue might change the above formula to something like: “he saw the injured man, he felt burned out, and he almost acted to help.” This describes many of our experiences with today’s needs. Especially in the month of December, when our email inboxes and our actual mailboxes are filled with year-end requests for giving, we can throw away most of these appeals without even looking at them, knowing in advance that it is beyond our limited capacity to help even a small percentage of them.

In the second section, Moore spends quite a bit of time dealing with individual passions and one’s vocation, suggesting a “passion pyramid,” and explaining that there are four domains of passionate engagement: service, justice, discovery, and advocacy. He paints a picture of one’s destiny that includes an interconnected circle around which lie one’s identity, one’s history, and one’s opportunity within which are found a recipe for understanding passion and destiny.

Finally, in section three, Moore moves from understanding our own passions to “Connecting with God’s Passions.” He argues that God has a passion for the ultra-poor, as demonstrated time and time again in Scripture. God’s people, and the many role models and voices God chose from within this people, and also from outside it, generally came from among the marginalized and the poor. He offers an analysis of poverty that explains its root causes (crisis, corruption, consequences, and choice), and then details some current issues threatening justice globally (illegal land seizure, bonded slavery, refugees, and human trafficking and the global sex trade). Finally, he closes with a summary:

The goal of faithful Christ followers is not to filter out needs, but to organize and prioritize them, to PageRank issue-based passions based on life-shaping experiences that heartlink us with God-ordained causes and intersect with his purposes for our lives. We are called to take the initiative in crossing boundaries and overcoming barriers to show God’s mercy by serving others. (152)

Steve Moore offers some helpful guidance for organizing and understanding our passions and relating these to the needs of the world, but in the end he does not answer his jarring opening question related to the question of discernment – in this age of awareness and uneven resources, those with more resources exist in a tension involving a balance between limits and awareness. It is a complex question that deserves a more complex answer.

Kenneth Reinhard, Eric Santner, and Slavoj Žižek each contribute a standalone essay in their volume which serves as a window into their long-running academic conversation regarding understanding the meaning of “neighbor” and “neighbor-love.” They introduce the premise of their book as an axiom that understands “that the Freudian revolution is stricto sensu internal to the topic of neighbor and, indeed, provides a crucial point of reference for the project of rethinking the notion of neighbor in light of the catastrophic experiences of the twentieth century” (3). Centering mostly on Freud’s contribution to humanity’s self-understanding, and how the idea of the unconscious opened up new ways of understanding others, the three essays delve deeply into a complex array of human questions that revolve around understanding the commandment to love one’s neighbor. I was not too far into this material before noting the irony of attempting to review this material, which raises serious and complex questions regarding the potential impossibility of loving one’s neighbor, alongside the Pathak and Runyon book which is premised on making this act as simple as possible. The introduction to The Neighbor points out that

for skeptical readers, both religious and secular, the commandment to love the neighbor has seemed far from rational and has, in fact, appeared deeply enigmatic – indeed, as an enigma that calls us to rethink the very nature of subjectivity, responsibility, and community (5).

One of many dilemmas they point readers to is the puzzling nature of deciding which neighbors to love, how to love them, and to what extent. Harking to Moore’s unanswered question of discernment, the authors point out that with the command to neighbor-love, “one cannot attempt to fulfill it without taking the risk of transgressing it” (5). Such is the complexity of attempting to fulfill the second great commandment – by making the attempt to live into it, we risk not only failure, but violation.

Reinhard’s essay begins the book, entitled “Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor.” In it he addresses a basic argument put forth by Carl Schmitt, a German political theorist whose influential twentieth-century writing on state power argued that a leader is identified essentially as one with the “God-like power to declare a state of emergency and to act outside the law” (11), and who suggested that all political action can be broken down to the relationship between people defined as “friends” and “enemies.” Reinhard walks his readers through a complex maze of commentators on biblical history, and the similarity between the Old Testament God of Israel and Schmitt’s dictatorial outside-the-law true leader. Events like Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac, and the death/sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, provide insight into the development of Schmitt’s theory of power and leadership. (An important side note is that Schmitt was born a Roman Catholic, practiced his faith until his excommunication in the 1920s after a second marriage, and joined the Nazi party in 1933, providing juristic counsel for the development of his anti-Semitic policies and practices through the 1930s.) Reinhard draws from Žižek’s explanation that “Freud’s account of the father in these texts provides a theological background for Schmitt’s understanding of political antagonism” (42). Jacques Lacan, Emmanuel Levinas, and Alain Badiou all enter into Reinhard’s dense commentary on the nature of the relationship between the love of self, the love of God, and the love of the neighbor. Commenting on a set of lectures given by Badiou in 2003, in which he connected love and politics with the development of a “neighborhood,” he writes:

The world that love opens, the new neighborhood, within the political and beyond the familial, is the only place where the two may be encountered as such. Badiou suggests that to love the neighbor is to create a new open space, a new universality in a particular place. (69)

In Eric Santner’s essay, “Miracles Happen: Benjamin, Rozenzweig, Freud, and the Matter of the Neighbor,” he develops the idea that the ability to love our neighbors according to the law is a kind of miracle. Drawing from German philosophers Walter Benjamin and Franz Rozenzweig and from Sigmund Freud and the Apostle Paul’s New Testament writings, Santner develops what he calls a “tentative step along the path of… postsecular thinking” in which he concludes that to be “answerable to our neighbor and the demands of the day,” each day is “actually a remarkable, even miraculous, achievement that require[s] some form of divine support – ultimately a form of love.” His point of departure for the development of this idea is Benjamin’s famous allegory of an automaton chess player representing historical materialism, guided by a wizened dwarf representing theology. Santner connects the idea of a miracle with Reinhard’s understanding in Schmitt of the right of a Sovereign, in this case God, to intervene outside the boundaries of the laws of time, space and physics, as a state of exception. Santner argues that it is only through this divine act that humans have the capacity for true neighbor-love.

Žižek’s final essay, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence,” addresses the neighbor-love question through a critique of Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Emmanuel Lévinas, Søren Kierkegaard, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and explains how an insistence on the ethical dimension of neighbor-love is the primary way to open up the political possibilities within the command to love neighbors. Žižek points out the flaw in separating the first and second commandments by noting that in John 4:12 we read, “No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us,” about which he quotes Levinas:

The natural preoccupation with our salvation is a remnant of self-love, a trace of natural egocentrism from which we must be torn by the religious life. As long as you think only salvation, you turn your back on God. God is God, only for the person who overcomes the temptation to degrade Him and use Him for his own ends. (140, citing Levinas, Difficult Freedom, 48)

Again quoting Levinas, Žižek articulates the difference between the ethical and the political: “Ethics involves an asymmetric relationship in which I am always-already responsible for the Other, while politics is the domain of symmetrical equality and distributive justice.” Žižek concludes by comparing Judaism and Christianity in the terms of neighbor-love, pointing out that the commandment originally came to the Jews:

It is crucial that it was Judaism, the religion of the harsh letter of the Law, that first formulated the injunction to love thy neighbor: the neighbor is not displayed through a face; it is, as we have seen, in his or her fundamental dimension a faceless monster. It is here that one has to remain faithful to the Jewish legacy: in order to arrive at the neighbor: we have to love, we must pass through the “dead” letter of the Law, which cleanses the neighbor of all imaginary lure, of the “inner wealth of a person” displayed through his or her face, reducing him or her to a pure subject. (185)

Finally, with the lyrics of the Johnny Cash song, “The Man Comes Around,” Žižek demonstrates his thesis that God has essentially two characters, one showing unconditional love and the other capricious and outside the Law. Cash sings about the judgment as a fixed and terrible day when “the just remain just, and the filthy remain filthy still,” and Žižek points out that

love that suspends the Law is necessarily accompanied by arbitrary cruelty that also suspends the Law. This is also why it is wrong to oppose the Christian god of Love to the Jewish god of cruel justice: excessive cruelty is the necessary obverse of Christian love (189).

One of the most honest-sounding phrases Žižek develops is in his articulation of the mystery of the Other:

To recognize the Other is thus not primarily or ultimately to recognize the Other in a certain well-defined capacity… but to recognize you in the abyss of your very impenetrability and opacity. This mutual recognition of limitation thus opens up a space of sociality that is the solidarity of the vulnerable. (139)

We are united in our vulnerability – to misunderstand the other, to transgress the Law to love our neighbors, and to the responsibility for each other in ways we cannot fully understand.

Application for these books to faith-based higher education includes an array of programs, questions, pedagogies, and dilemmas. First we must ask to what extent a college or university can and must be a neighbor, as an institution or community. Mission statements at most universities typically include the language of service and of citizenship and leadership, so the answer seems always to have been a clear “yes,” even if it is also true that our fundamental purpose is not social service, but higher education. The next question is how most wisely and effectively to engage the curriculum, the ethos of the institution, and the rhythm of its communal life toward the end of fulfilling this mandate. Keeping the second great commandment coupled with the first – to love God, and also to love our neighbor – has been a fundamental challenge for higher education through the ages, and continues to be challenging even for faith-based colleges and universities. Many faith-based universities are still pretty good, generically, at the second, but have quite often decoupled it from the first. Service activity, civic engagement and participation as a skill and something to be learned and taught, is commonplace and growing at faith-based and secular institutions alike; in fact, the leaders in the civic engagement and service-learning movements are generally elite secular schools. It appears that the attempt on the part of colleges and universities to remain true to both commandments of the Shema simultaneously has served to distract from the serious business of the second great commandment as a tenet in higher education practice. The ability to do this has simply not been developed well yet. It still may be developed through thoughtful and faithful study abroad and service-learning opportunities, interfaith dialog activities and participation, ecumenism on- and off-campus, and a philosophically honest recognition of our limits and the limits of our students.

And efforts toward being good neighbors have been strengthened by research and scholarship aimed at the common good, by careful and thoughtful attention and resourcing of service-learning and community-based research efforts, and by equipping students, while they are still students, to be good neighbors in the communities in which colleges and universities exist. Colleges and universities should be addressing questions of whether or not their students (and faculty and staff) are actually being good neighbors – shoveling the sidewalks in front of their off-campus houses, bringing meals to neighbors, limiting their carbon footprints through bus riding, bicycling to campus, or carpooling, developing meaningful relationships with neighbors, and, among many other academic activities, designing engineering projects that serve the common good, nearby and far away.

So in the light of these three books, I am still thinking about, writing about, and trying to practice good neighboring. I am challenged to ponder the Good Samaritan parable and how it applies to me and to my world. I wonder about the possibility, and the complexity of what it means to love one’s neighbor, and for God to command us to love each other. What does it mean that God reserves the right to interrupt the laws of the universe? And if he can so interrupt these laws for our good, does it not then hold that he could also do so for our not-good? And is that not what seems to have happened in some of the most violent atrocities of the past century? When I visited Auschwitz on Remembrance Day in 2011 with eighteen Calvin College students, I wondered, how on earth did God allow the Third Reich to commit the crimes against God’s own people like they did? And what about Rwanda, and Argentina? What about what is happening on the world stage over the past several years in Syria, in Egypt, in Uganda and Sudan, and now more recently in Ukraine? And what about hunger and other forms of chronic violence? How are these realities possible in a universe governed by a good God? Is the Creator also the destroyer – what could this mean? How does the tapestry of meaning get woven together if not in a combination of God’s good interruptive behavior and God’s seemingly capricious non-interruptive behavior when it seems like the universe screams for God’s hand of protection and interruption? Meaning eludes me, and all of us.

And our response toward our neighbor in the face of this mystery is complicated, and there are many faces of how we treat each other. And why should there not be? We are a complicated people with lots of complicated baggage and history of our own, and we have our hurts to heal, and our egos to stroke. So countries and peoples plant flags and set up guns and seek to drive others out, and to establish their own superiority over and over again. And we are all broken. So I wonder what does my community of employment, Calvin College, what does the Christian Reformed Church to which I belong, what does my little family in my particular neighborhood have to say in the face of all this inhumanity? Maybe I say, “I’m going to invite my neighbors over to my house for a potluck dinner.” Maybe I say, “I’m going to serve on the board of this inspiring organization even if it seems like the most idealistic organization that ever existed.” Maybe I say, “I’m going to parent my kids, and love my wife even if they don’t always deserve it, and I’m going to accept their love even when I know for sure I don’t deserve it.” And maybe I say, “I want to see a different world, and I’m willing to plant a flag for a better reality, and work toward it despite all the evidence of how impossible it is.” That is what it means, I guess.

I have neighbors who live in Hungary named Tibor, Enikö, Zoltan, Kata and Dora. I have a neighbor named Karl who serves as a University Ministry staff member at a Catholic university in Chicago, and who serves students from all faiths and no faith in this place where future leaders are trained. I have a neighbor named Val who serves students at a small college in California, and who encourages their involvement in service to others outside themselves, even though many of her students come from privileged lives and are blinded by their wealth to the deep lessons to be learned from the poor. I have neighbors down my street named Michele and Nestor who escaped the Communist regime in Eastern Europe just before the bloody revolution in their country, and who now wonder about their life’s work in dissident film-making in their former land. I have neighbors named Kurt and Kevin who love each other and who abide in a world where they are only safe in certain pockets of legal and social protection – where basic rights are not evenly distributed. And I have neighbors named Miguel and Juan Carlos who slipped across the border into this country years ago in search of opportunities to feed their families, and who now navigate the complexities of a wealthy nation with an inhospitable cacophony of immigration policies. Each of these neighbors wakes up every morning and does their best to make the world a better place, as do you and I. These are the neighbors with whom we, and our students, are in view all of our lives.

A neighbor, per Jesus’s definition, is someone you love. If you do not love someone, you are not their neighbor, and they are not yours.

Cite this article
Jeffrey P. Bouman, “Who is My Neighbor? Musings on Christian Higher Education and the “Solidarity of the Vulnerable” —A Review Essay”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 267-278


  1. Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owens, Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).
  2. Samuel Wells, “Rethinking Service,” Cresset (Easter 2013): 10.

Jeffrey P. Bouman

Calvin University
Jeffrey Bouman is Director of the Service-Learning Center at Calvin University.