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America and the Forgotten Commandment

I exited the local supermarket last week just as the outside temperature approached 100 degrees. Frustrated by the break in my routine caused by my upcoming household move, I barely noticed a woman pushing a stroller next to me. As I stopped to unload my groceries into my car at the corner of the parking lot, the woman continued past me for a few steps only to turn around. As she said “hello,” I prepared myself for a request for money, which is not an uncommon event in a town where approximately 33 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. But I was surprised. In halting English, she asked me for a ride, and my face fell. I looked at the sleeping baby in her stroller as she shifted uncomfortably in the heat, and I quietly told the woman that I could not give her a ride; the woman smiled and thanked me, saying she understood, and then she turned to continue toward the highway. As the woman walked away, I felt a deep sense of guilt. I considered pursuing her to offer some money for a taxi home, but the thought itself only steeped my mind further in remorse, knowing that I could spare a few dollars for a taxi that would probably never come down this stretch of road, but I was too afraid to share anything more “valuable” or personal, such as my time. The world has taught me to hesitate before lending a helping hand that could be grabbed by someone with dangerous motives. How many times do we offer money to those in need, knowing well that it cannot perfectly discharge our moral obligations, just as much as we are certain that it is, in fact, the perfect solution to bring us our own peace of mind? Several times I have handed over money so I could rest in the shade of the illusion that I had done my part to help. Driving home, I remembered the woman’s unsteady, thickly accented words and imagined she might be an immigrant. What did my actions teach her about this society? That we are suspicious of our neighbors and that it is good to be so? That as we extol the virtues of self-reliance, we have turned our backs on women and children in need and suspect that most people who approach us are “out for themselves,” like everyone else? Are these the lessons that are both cruel and necessary for survival in our country? I hoped that whoever did offer her a ride would not make her experience of America even worse, and I prayed that she and her baby would make it to their destination safely. My encounter last week leaves me with fewer questions about why Americans increasingly look to the government to help them. Who else can they look to for any kind of assistance? Certainly not to neighbors who are content to be “done” with obligations to their faceless neighbors by paying taxes which ensure that the broken wheel of entitlement programs stays in motion a little longer. How far will we drift from the better parts of the vision of our founders like George Washington, who understood morality to be the “necessary spring of popular government,” before we realize that the work of government alone is not enough? Thinking about (and rethinking) moral obligations to neighbors called to mind this particular passage from the New Testament:
But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40 (New American Standard Bible)
It is notable that the same account of this event in the book of Luke is followed by the story of the Good Samaritan, who takes it upon himself to help a beaten and unknown traveler and who Jesus states is “the neighbor” deserving of love. This is likely to have been a surprising and radical message to a group of Jews who would not have identified with Samaritans. The mandate to actively love others in need who we suppose to be wholly different from us is a command that has force in many religions. Perhaps, too, it isn’t just God’s law that depends upon the cornerstone of this neighborly love, but also the laws of man. While the personal commandment to care for our neighbors as we would care for ourselves is forgotten, the foundation of our society will continue to sink and jeopardize a brighter future.