My January Christianity Today column is now online ... and presented here for your perusal. Lemme know what you think!
There Goes The Neighborhood
Do I have to love my neighbor if he breaks the law?
used to live on a street in Surrey, British Columbia, we called "the
Mother of All Cul-De-Sacs." The space between the houses was large
enough to accommodate a dozen parked cars or a spirited soccer match.
Our daughter learned to walk in that cul-de-sac, and our son shot his
first basket into a full-sized hoop there. (Granted, he was on his
father's shoulders at the time.) Every night, a dozen kids would spill
onto the street with bikes or hockey sticks, and we would congratulate
ourselves on having selected the perfect neighborhood.
year after we moved in, the street's complexion changed. Several of the
young families moved away, and we had a hard time getting to know our
We heard nasty rumors that certain
residents were using their homes to grow marijuana. "Grow-ops" were a
rampant problem in our area, but my husband and I doubted we were
sharing fences with criminals. Our friendly neighbor to the right,
"Van," had recently arrived in Canada but was working hard on his
English. Our neighbors to the left, an older couple who gardened
relentlessly, seemed reserved but agreeable.
afternoon, my kids and I noticed a flurry of activity. We watched as
our neighbors on both sides were chased and cuffed by police, and
truckloads of plants and equipment were pulled out of each of their
residences. A sign declaring the area to be the site of a successful
drug bust was proudly displayed—in our driveway!
husband arrived home and intercepted one of the officers walking across
our lawn. Our four-year-old eavesdropped on their conversation and ran
back to me. "Our neighbors were arrested for throwing dough,"
he said, confused and troubled. "Why aren't you allowed to throw
dough?" I wasn't sure whether to clarify that the officer had actually
said "growing dope."
That night, the more I wrestled with how to explain the day's events to our kids, the angrier I got. How dare those people invade our neighborhood and expose our children to dangerous criminal elements?
was still fuming the next day when I left to perform at an event called
"Love Surrey." Area pastors had organized a multidenominational outdoor
service in an effort to reach out to the community—just the sort of
thing I love to support. But my anger boiled backstage as some friends
warned me that grow-op owners are often quickly released and face
I returned home to see Van
standing in the middle of our formerly kid-friendly cul-de-sac, holding
a Coke can and chatting with my husband. I was seething when Mark
walked into the house 30 minutes later.
"I can't believe he's a free man," I hissed.
"Yeah," Mark shrugged. "The laws are pretty weak. But …"
"But what?" I asked, incredulous.
feels terrible." Mark sighed. "He's been out there pulling tiny weeds
from the cul-de-sac garden, stuffing them into that Coke can. He's
trying to show everyone how sorry he is. He keeps promising it will
never happen again."
As Mark told me some of Van's
story (a sad tale of personal tragedy, poor choices, and exploitation
by people higher up the criminal food chain), I had a sudden epiphany.
Van was my neighbor.
course I knew he lived next door, but I realized with a start that Van
was my neighbor in the "love your neighbor as yourself" sense. It
dawned on me that if I had been the lawyer trying to define the law in
Luke's gospel, Jesus could have told me a story about a pot grower in
I looked down at the new "Love Surrey"
T-shirt I was wearing and winced, remembering Charles Schultz's ironic
words: "I love mankind; it's just people I can't stand." I had
known—preached, even—love of neighbor in the abstract. I had believed
that the point of the Good Samaritan parable was that my neighbor is
anyone who needs my help. But I had been thinking more of innocent
victims in Africa than of drug-producing villains on my street.
hope the kindness we eventually decided to show Van helped him change
half as much as he changed the way we see the people around us. The
driven professional with the BMW, the retiree with the yappy dog, the
new immigrant too shy to make eye contact—these are our neighbors. And
if we love the God who made them, we will love them as we love
C. S. Lewisobserves,
"There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal." There
are six billion residents on this cul-de-sac we call home, each of them
bearing the image of God, each of them a neighbor to be loved. We might
as well start with the immortals next door.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.