Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

by

Yesterday I was in California once, Georgia once, Tennessee three times, and Virginia three times. It was a long day but not an unusual one. The great historian Paul Johnson, in his book Birth of the Modern, devotes a rather long chapter to the developments in travel, particularly road building, in the first part of the nineteenth century. He claims that such advances laid the groundwork for the modern age. My long day was the fruit of a pair of early twentieth century inventors who likewise made their stamp upon the world: the Wright brothers. I went to California for a conference, to meet with people eager enough to hear what I think to invite me all the way out there. But I hurried back, flying all night, to be with my congregation. I left over a thousand people (who admittedly came to hear R.C. Sproul, but a different one than me) to come back to a crowd well under one hundred. In California I gratefully listened to people praise Tabletalk and say things like, “I feel like I know you and your family.” It’s a nice sentiment, and appreciated, but it isn’t true. Those good people do not know me, and they do not know my family. The tiny crowd at my church, they not only know me, they love me. But they wouldn’t know me and love me if my schedule were such that I were constantly on the road (of course my family wouldn’t know me and love me either). After the freeways and the skyways, along came the information superhighway. Now at the push of a button I can find thousands of people who share my ideas, and send them a letter. They read my profile, and suddenly we’re best friends. Yahoo. None of it matters though if I can’t touch them. Cyber-friendships, though as common as sand, are also about as stable.

I’m afraid that all the grand technology that makes us think we are getting closer together really is driving us apart. I’m reminded of the wisdom of the great agrarian Andrew Lytle on a previous technology. He traced the destruction of the American family not to government schools nor to video games but to central heating. Before that “gift,” families had to be warm together, or freeze alone.

I’m not, of course, anti-technology. It is because of the computer that I can write this article in my home rather than at some central office. And thanks to the telephone, I can maintain some semblance of a relationship with friends at Ligonier. My son Campbell is with me right now, doing a puzzle on my couch. More and more daddies have that same joy because of the computer. My concern is that we have allowed grand technologies and the perpetual drive for efficiency to kill off the capacity to be a neighbor. When we buy our clothes through the telephone, when we buy our nails at the Stuff-Mart, when we get our biblical teaching by radio, well then, we are really very much alone. And in times of social upheaval, one ought not to be alone.

When I was a kid, we didn’t buy gas at Chevron, we bought it from Mr. Hoffer. We didn’t get our TVs from Circuit City, we got them from Mr. Zimmerman. We didn’t get our prescriptions from Walgreen’s, we got them from Mrs. Hayes. (The names, by the way, have not been changed, to honor the innocent.) And Mrs. Hayes didn’t have to depend upon some satellite downlink or threatening government database to remember our allergies and check on our other medications; she knew because she knew us. And we knew her and the others. We knew if she or Mr. Hoffer or Mr. Zimmerman was sick or had lost a loved one. We could pray and care for each other because our relationships were more than strictly economic. While I might exchange a smile with the clerk at Chainstores ‘R’ Us, I won’t get to know him or her.

It need not be—and ought not to be—this way. It is hard to find a real person these days behind the franchise facade. Efficiency has driven Mom and Pop, by and large, out of business. But not all of them. My wife Denise and I are painters. God has gifted us both such that we can take a large dingy gray surface and make of it a beautiful large off-white surface. In our two years in our home we have painted every room. And we buy our paint not at Lowe’s, not at Wal-Mart, but at G.O. Hardware, the same place I get my nails. For the few cents extra I pay, I get a relationship. If there is great social upheaval in our future, the Wal-Mart by the interstate will be a hollow shell. The sign outside will say, “Welcome to Loot-Me Mart—The Only One You’ll Hurt Is Some Guy In Arkansas You’ll Never Meet.” But Miss Donna at the hardware store knows me, she knows my children, and she knows what kind of fittings I need for my pipes. And that is going to matter if or when things get ugly.

Paul Johnson was right, travel systems are the driving force behind a civilization. But if the civilization goes down, so do the roads. And if that happens, that means trading on a local level. Industrial farmers Perdue and Tyson wouldn’t be able to sell you a chicken if they wanted to. That guy in the shack, the one with the beatup truck, the redneck you occasionally make fun of, he’ll be able to deliver, at least to his friends.

And that’s the bottom line. We have got to learn both to become friends with those around us (even though we meet more interesting, and perhaps even slightly more like-minded, people on the Internet), and get our friends to get closer to us. If you can’t name your neighbors, the ones who live beside, behind, and across from you, then you can’t be a neighbor. And if the social grease becomes clogged, whether by a computer virus, a biological weapon, or a wave of barbarians, neither you nor your neighbor can afford to be alone. The love you feel for the family you left several states away to pursue the American dream will show itself to be the anemic love it always was.

If you don’t know the special gifts and special needs of the family beside you in the pew, you can’t even be a neighbor to those to whom you have committed yourself. Will you lay your life down for “that guy in the choir,” or for Bill with the three small children, one of whom has asthma, the one who loves to read John Owen? Would you rather see your next-door neighbor at your door with a gun and conclude “We’re being attacked” or “How nice of Tim to come over to help stand guard”?

One of the most critical things you can do to prepare for an unseen and perhaps unpleasant future is to do the very pleasant task of getting to know those around you. Making friends is more important than stockpiling dry goods. Better still, do both. If you want to obey our Lord and love your neighbor, it’s better to get started now while it’s still easy. Friends are invaluable to have, and notoriously difficult to make, in hard times. And if nothing bad happens, would you rather be oversupplied with dried milk or with friends? Think locally, act locally. Take the road less traveled. It can make all the difference in the world.

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