Who is My Neighbor?
In an age of instant global media, how do we understand our neighborly responsibilities to those near and far? Wolterstorff shares reflections and personal stories.
Who is my neighbor? Who counts as my neighbor? Is it just the guy next door, who’s a little loud sometimes or does it include people who are hopeless in countries far, far away from me? But about which I could change their situation, I could do something to improve their lives. Who is my neighbor?
So let me tell you a true story. In 1956 my wife and I went to England. I had a, at the end of grad school, I had a paid fellowship which didn’t involve much in the way of work. So we went to England and we decided to go to Cambridge. I had graduated from Harvard, all the other young philosophers from the U.S.
Who were going to England were going to Oxford. That was, for me, a reason for not going to Oxford, I didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing in Cambridge. So we went to Cambridge, looked for an apartment. Found an apartment in an old Victorian house, Miss Ansel. Our apartment was on the second floor, there was another apartment on the second floor in which a young Israeli couple lived.
This was at the time of the Hungarian invasion by the Russians. So Miss Ansel was, well I never knew whether she was a spinster or what. Anyway, she was single. I suppose she was 60, 55, 60. So she spent all day, every day in a drawing room, right off the front door, writing letters to world figures to get them to do something to stop the Russians from invading Hungary. And she told me she wrote to the British Prime Minister and offered to lay her own body across the tracks between Hungary and Russia, provided the British government would pay for her way there and in case she was not run over, pay for her way back.
So I was standing at the door one day and the Israeli… Oh, in the back of her house was an orchard, a sizable orchard. This was in the fall and the apples were dropping. The Israeli couple was there and the Israeli couple asked, “May we pick these fallen apples?” She sat straight upright and said tartly, “The garden is off limits to renters.”
So this is my best example of cheap liberalism. Oozing empathy for the Hungarians and utterly oblivious. So who’s her neighbor? Her first neighbor, her prior neighbor is the Israeli couple, she should pay attention to them, first of all. If she’s got time and energy left over, okay, write letters about the Hungarians and so forth. But this poor… Well it was clear to us that the Israeli couple was very poor. No the garden is off limits to renters.
So the apples are falling, rotting, but she’s bleeding about. There’s a character in Dickens’ Bleak House I guess, Mrs. Jellyby, who was very much like Miss Ansel. Mrs. Jellyby is devoted to a mission in Africa, the poor Africans. Neglects her own children, they’re running around hungry, half-clothed, and so forth. So I think of it like this, I met a real Mrs. Jellyby and her name was Miss Ansel.
What would you say with all respect that Miss Ansel is due, what would you say is the shortcoming? If we’re to expect that kind of character of a Christian, what can we do to avoid these kinds of things? How can we put ourselves in a position to develop a loving character that does attend to those around us and think rightly, think appropriately about how we spend our time, our resources, our energy?
So I think we have to give priority to the nearest neighbors. Family, in this case the people who are living in your own house.
You’re saying that proximity matters.
Yeah, so proximity matters. And then expand out from that. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a mission in far South Africa. But first of all, Mrs. Jellyby had a responsibility to her children and Miss Ansel had a responsibility to her renters. So circles of responsibility, I think.