“In an essay published shortly before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of the dangers of closed tribes as the “great new problem of mankind:” We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. He went on to say that all inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors; “all men are interdependent” and “all life is interrelated.”
‘Neighbor’ comes from the Old English word neahgebur, which means “near-dweller;” by this definition, a neighbor can literally be anyone who lives in our geographical vicinity. The word neighbor may also refer to a person we know and who knows us, someone with whom we are familiar even from afar.
Although familiarity is more personal than someone who happens to live next door, down the block, or in the same building as us, it is not the most profound meaning of ‘neighbor.’ When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) he responded by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that, along with being a radical indictment of the religious elite (speaking truth to power), makes the point that a true neighbor is a person who responds to the plight of one in need, who gives hands-on care even to a stranger. And when Dr King says “all inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors,” he too is being prophetic by positing that each one of us has a responsibility to attend to others no matter where they live or what our differences.
Religious scholar and author Huston Smith cautions us to “beware of the differences that blind us to the unity that binds us.” Unity is not merely a matter of likeness, it is not about common ethnicity, religion, economic status, sexual orientation, political persuasion, and the like, for these are very real differences. When we identify with them, such groupings can make us “closed tribes,” they become not just the substance of differences, but the source of divisions. The unity that binds us has to do with our spiritual essence, with the fact that what enlivens all of us is the same – we share a common source and sustaining force.
We live in a global village, the earth is our ‘hood, our planet is a “world house.” Because we live under the same celestial ceiling, and because the ground upon which we walk is our shared floor, we are neighbors, yes, but housemates, too, called not merely to get along, but to realize that we belong to each other.