Today our neighbors are desperate for hope. And our current season of virus-induced losses and trauma and uncertainty and fear and isolation has created a ripe opportunity for we Christians to give witness to the hope that is within us. When so many people are tempted to respond to COVID and its uncertainties by tightening […]
Today our neighbors are desperate for hope. And our current season of virus-induced losses and trauma and uncertainty and fear and isolation has created a ripe opportunity for we Christians to give witness to the hope that is within us.
When so many people are tempted to respond to COVID and its uncertainties by tightening their fists and circling their wagons and pointing their fingers, how refreshing would it be for Jesus’ followers to rediscover in this season the hopeful Christian virtue of pursuing the common good?
PURSUING THE COMMON GOOD
There was a time when zeal for the common good of your community was a central and celebrated Christian virtue.
This was the case in the early church, for example. Most of us are familiar with the first Christians’ habits of caring for the poor, receiving travelers, taking in abandoned babies, and providing comfort during two early pandemics.
Their pagan neighbors viewed these hopeful habits as inexplicable acts of selflessness, and as a result many pagans were attracted to the Christian faith. But within the church this zeal to pursue the common good was seen as a natural and obvious result of following a Jesus who laid his own life down and who called his disciples to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37–40)
And so, the earliest Christians felt it was as right as rain to bless the place and people right around them—loving neighbors was understood to be the “royal law” (James 2:8) that fulfilled the “whole law” of God (Gal. 5:14). As John Chrysostom (the famed preacher in Constantinople who happens to be one of my personal heroes) put it in the early 400s:
“This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good … for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.”
From Augustine to Aquinas, from Catholics to Protestants, Christians across the ages and denominations have seen zeal for the common good to be a beautiful part of the Christian life. As a result, neighborhoods with even one Christian household in them have tended to be hopeful neighborhoods.
THE TIME OF COVID-19
But what could that look like today?
In a sense, we are ideally situated to rediscover the power of neighborly love: many of us are sequestered in our neighborhoods! My wife, Wendy, and I have probably gone on more walks through our neighborhood (and gotten in more conversations with neighbors) in the last four months than we have in the entire twelve years before that. The good news is we are more neighborhood-bound as a society than we have been for decades.
The bad news? Our familiarity with our neighbors is at an all-time low. Sociologists have noticed the ways consumerism and commuting have been eroding neighborliness, and psychiatrists are alarmed at a drastic rise in chronic loneliness. The reality is many of us are “living above place”, that is, living life without any meaningful connection to the actual people and place where we live.
The result? It just doesn’t feel as right as rain for us to relate with (let alone bless) the people and place right where we live.
So, if we want to take advantage of this current season to once again breathe hope into our neighborhoods, we have to figure out how to be neighbors again.
REDISCOVERING YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD
But how do you reconnect with neighbors while social distancing? You begin one step at a time, even if those steps are small:
1. Make a list of neighbors you know and what you know about them. Keep the list in your Bible and pray for them from time to time.
2. Sit or linger in your front yard and see whom God brings by for you to greet.
3. Go on walks around your neighborhood and greet everyone you see with a smile and kind words.
4. If you don’t know any of your neighbors, introduce yourself to three of them this week.
5. If you have neighbors you’ve waved to for years but never learned their name, go over and say, “You know what, we’ve been living by each other for years and I don’t think I’ve ever learned your name!”
6. If you are acquaintances with any neighbors, deepen your relationship by inviting them to sit outside and share some lemonade.
7. Make a flier that offers simple help (shopping or cleaning or yard work) to any neighbors who can’t get out, and put the flier on people’s doors (one of my and Wendy’s neighbors did this very thing!)
8. Organize an improvised drive-in theater with a projector or large television outside your house or in a local park—invite neighbors to bring their own lawn chairs and enjoy a socially distanced but social evening.
These small acts are ways of seeking the common good of your neighborhood. They are acts of love and hope. And that is exactly what your neighbors are hungry for. Jesus was pretty clear that when people see our “good works” it will be like they are seeing a light. (Matt. 5:16). Love and hope are always beautiful. But in times of difficulty they seem to shine brighter and garner even more attention.
Alan Kreider in The Patient Ferment of the Early Church has shown that the first Christians had “eloquent behavior”—their zeal for the common good not only caught the attention of their pagan neighbors, it ultimately convinced their neighbors of the truth of the gospel message they were proclaiming with their words. Their neighborly love was their apologetic.
What if that became the case again today? That, brothers and sisters, is reason for hope even in this age of COVID-19.