Honour your Neighbour
Looking directly through somebody’s window is normally seen as rather nosy, but right now you have the privilege of doing exactly that, legitimately. Peer through this window, and you see a small sitting room with five women in it; all are focussed on their phones, rather than each other; are they addicted to their phones? You can see that these are all older women, which maybe makes it even worse? these women didn’t grow up with mobile phones, so should be able to put them aside and interact. Moreover, looking on, you can see that, rather than talking to each other, they appear to be talking to themselves, or maybe their phones, and often even at the same time. Isn’t this rather rude?
But peer a bit closer; look at their phones; each phone is showing the same screen; look carefully at their mouths, do a bit of lipreading: when these women speak at the same time, they are saying the same words. You can have a closeup at their screens: you realise that each phone is showing the Daily Office. Far from ignoring each other to focus on the world in their phones, these women are actually praying together, using an app to give them the liturgy. Rather than their phones separating and isolating them, they are brought closer together through them.
But an initial glimpse of this scenario might well give you much more of the first idea than the second; there wouldn’t be the time, nor would it be appropriate, to focus in as much detail as we have here to work out exactly what is going on. If you walked in on this, you might pick up on the atmosphere of prayer. But in daily life we more often have to make judgements based on limited information. We are aware of people’s behaviour, yet are often unaware of why they behave as they do; and may well interpret reasons based on our previous experience, rather than theirs. Why does that person always arrive late for church? Why does another always start coughing at the crucial point of the sermon? Why do they wear their hair like that? Why do they speak so loudly/softly? Why does that car have to have such a loud engine? Why will they let their dog off the lead to run up to me? Why do they react so badly when my dog is only trying to be friendly? If they’re dressed like that, they must be intelligent/stupid/of a certain class/too good to be here/not good enough to be here …. Judgements that we may not always be aware of making.
You could probably create your own list; we all make instant judgements, and sometimes those judgements are necessary, and essential for carrying on our daily life. That person looks like they might be upset, so I need to tread carefully; that other person doesn’t want to be talked to … and that may be all that’s needed. But at other times, the judgements we make can have a more lasting impact, particularly if about people we meet regularly; and sometimes those judgements may be wrong, based as they are on limited information. That person who reacts badly to your friendly dog? Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with dogs in the past, maybe they’re scared of them or maybe they don’t know how to react with dogs, and could be taught … or maybe they don’t want to interact with your dog, and are irritated with you for not controlling it.
But those judgements we make about other people, which are always likely to be based on limited information except for those we know well, can have an impact on them, on ourselves and on our relationship with God. The two greatest commandments in the law are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, then to love your neighbour as yourself. (see Matthew 22:34-40). These two commandments work together; how can you love God, whom you have not seen, if you do not love your neighbour, whom you have seen? (see 1 John 4:19-21). Yet how can we love our neighbour, if we don’t know them all that well, if it is not appropriate to ask them about behaviour which bothers us, if we cannot know the motivations behind their actions? I think there can be a respect of other people, an acknowledgement that our assessment of them may be wrong, an honouring of who they are in God that can help to separate us from the judgement that ‘I think X is like that, therefore X is like that’. An honouring of the other as beloved by God, however irritating we find them or however much we disagree with them; a respect of the fact that their behaviour and motivations may be very different from what we think they are, and that what we think may be influenced as much by who we are, as by who they are.
Loving your neighbour is very complex; human behaviour is varied, and sometimes inappropriate, wrong or depraved. Can we honour everybody? What about the bully or the abuser? How do we honour those, let alone love them? These are difficult issues, and one I am not really qualified to answer, especially in a blog post. It is easy to say that such behaviour should be stopped, or at least called out, but in reality it is not always possible, or may be unwise, certainly without professional help. But this piece is not really about those situations, rather it is about those we meet glancingly, those we meet in our daily lives who are not criminal or immoral, but just irritating; those we make instant assumptions about, without going below the surface. Can we start to honour those people? If we believe in a God of love, then they are beloved of God, as are we ourselves. But that may come to the core of the issue. If we cannot love our neighbour, are we truly loving ourselves? In judging our neighbour, are we actually judging ourselves? If we cannot see our neighbour as beloved of God, then have we truly accepted that we ourselves are God’s beloved, too?