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01 January 2009

Talking About... Neighbours

Talking About... Neighbours

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

Love your neighbour is probably the most famous biblical commandment. But what if my neighbour plays hiphop at midnight? What if my neighbour doesn't like me?

There was a time when we thought neighbours were a good thing. We would chat over garden fences, pop round for a coffee, keep a protective eye on each other. Now we're more ambivalent. Neighbours can be noisy, messy, even hostile. The phrase "neighbours from hell" is firmly embedded in our culture. One reason why many people long for a rural retreat is the desire to escape from uncomfortable urban neighbours. But bad neighbours can be anywhere.

Three key changes have created this problem with neighbours. And the issue is bound up with the nature of the modern world, affecting rural areas as well as cities.

The first and most obvious is the change in lifestyles. People generally work much further from their homes than they used to, so they spend less time there. They leave early and return late. And women are far more likely to be out at work, so they're not around to bump into others and nurture friendships.

Meanwhile, leisure time is spent watching television rather than chatting at the pub. When we go out, it's often with friends from work rather than from next door. We just don't interact much with others at a local level. Neighbourhoods used to be communities; now they're mere areas.

A second factor is having more technology in our lives. A radio's tiny speaker might be heard through the wall, but a music system can disturb a whole street. Televisions glow from every room in the house. Power tools, strimmers and more all intrude into our lives and disturb our increasingly fragile tranquillity.

But the third change is the most significant. We have become a society in which we put ourselves first and others a poor second. And this shift has been gathering pace for a long time as Christian values are pushed to one side.

Sigmund Freud, one of the key influences on the last century, believed that it was right to put ourselves first. In Civilisation and Its Discontents, he argued that it is not only hard to love your neighbour, it would "be wrong to do so". The neighbour, he said, is "unworthy of my love" and "has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred".

Stranger danger

By focusing on our own needs and desires, we begin to see the neighbour as someone who might impinge on our rights, rather than as someone to whom we have responsibilities. When a neighbour builds a huge catamaran in his garden, parks across our drive or keeps the volume on full, we feel that there has been some incursion into our sovereignty. Our view, our space, our peace has been invaded. Our rights have been violated.

This is the situation facing Clint Eastwood's character, Walt Kowalski, in Gran Torino. He plays a grouchy, racist Korean War veteran who resents the influx of East Asians into his neighbourhood. Things come to a head when his Hmong neighbour tries to steal his prized car, and Walt sets about trying to reform the young man. It turns out to be a process that changes him too.

A homeless, Julliard-trained musician (Jamie Foxx) is befriended by a journalist (Robert Downey Jr) in The SoloistThis raises a very important question: what ethical responsibilities does a neighbour have? We can quickly reel off a list of things our neighbours should do: Turn it down! Clean it up! Leave me alone! But we're neighbours too, and we're always more reluctant to consider what responsibilities we have.

Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a follower who wanted to put limits on the command to "love your neighbour as yourself". The stranger who showed mercy was the neighbour to the one in need, despite the hostility between their peoples. Jesus' point is that we have an obligation to love other people as ourselves, whether or not they live next door.

But what does it mean to love others as ourselves? It means doing for them what we would like someone to do for us in the same situation. We call this the Golden Rule, but only Jesus expresses it positively (Matthew 7.12). Other ethical traditions express it negatively: don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you. The negative version stops us upsetting people; Christ's positive version is transforming.

Will Smith's character understands this in Seven Pounds. He has wrecked his life in seven seconds, so he decides to make a difference in seven strangers' lives. And Robert Downey Jr's character in The Soloist understands this when he goes out of his way to help a down-and-out musician (Jamie Foxx) with mental health problems, although there's a sense that the musician's wasted talent makes him somehow more deserving of help.

It's not enough to restrain ourselves from behaving in anti-social ways or from responding angrily to our neighbours' transgressions. Restraint doesn't deal with underlying attitudes. But actively showing love to others can begin to help.

In other words, Freud was wrong. Love is not just for those who earn it or who we think have a natural right to it. No, love must be for our neighbours too. It's the only way our neighbourhoods will be transformed into genuine communities once more.

  • Find out more about the issues raised in this article at: damaris.org/ideamagazine
  • Toolsfortalks.com contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly.Tony Watkins
  • Photos - Top: In Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood (right) plays a war veteran who tries to reform the Hmong neighbour (Doua Moua) who tried to steal his car © Warner - Bottom: A homeless, Julliard-trained musician (Jamie Foxx) is befriended by a journalist (Robert Downey Jr) in The Soloist © Universal.

Tony Watkins is resources and training co-ordinator for the Damaris Trust

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