In hundreds of verses in the Christian Bible in both the Old and New Testaments like those quoted below, believers are enjoined to not walk alone, to focus outward to the needs of the world not inward to our own, to love our enemies. It seems as if these hard things – and they are hard – are getting harder. They’re so hard we’re unlikely to succeed on our own.
Hebrews 13:16: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Matthew 5:44: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Terrorists. How is it possible for Christians – anyone really – to love those enemies, to even pray for them? Advocates of gun control hate advocates of the Second Amendment, and vice versa. Congress hates the president. Democrats hate Republicans. Neighbors hate neighbors.
Jonathan Rothermel, professor of political science at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa., writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer says part of our problem – why we find it so hard to look to the interests of others, to bear one another’s burdens, to love our enemies – is a loss of “social capital.”
Through our isolation and our dependence on social media (Facebook friendships, Rothermel writes, are “a poor substitute for genuine social relationships”) our social capital has been reduced. We’ve lost human understanding and empathy. We care less about each other.
Rothermel cites a 2010 Pew Research Survey that found 28 percent of Americans don’t know their neighbors by name. If we care less about those closest to us, how can we care about anybody else? If we don’t even know our neighbors, how can we love them, let alone strangers miles away – or anyone for that matter – who don’t think the same way we do?
An old story set on Christmas Eve in 1881 is worth retelling here to illustrate. A young man was wallowing in self-pity because he had not received the rifle he had been coveting and was not likely to get on Christmas day, times being what they were. Then to top it off, his Pa told him to get bundled up and hitch up the horses to the sled even though it was pitch dark, freezing cold, and the chores had already been done.
After filling the sled with firewood, a ham, a sack of flour, and some candy and shoes, the young man, feeling greatly sorry for himself, and his Pa traveled several miles – a good distance along snowy dirt paths in 1881 – to the widow Jensen’s shack. She had lost her husband a year ago, her four children their father.
“Why are we doing all this?” the young man asked himself. “There are neighbors closer to the widow Jensen than us. We hardly know her.”
When the young man saw the look on the widow Jensen’s face, the tears in her eyes, the feet of her gaunt children wrapped in gunny sacks for lack of shoes, and the flickering embers in her fireplace barely emitting any warmth compared to the roaring fire in his own fireplace, he knew why his Pa came here.
On the way back home, his Pa explained that the money they had scraped together for their son’s rifle the past year was used, instead, to buy the shoes and candy for the kids. The young man never again saw his Pa in the same light and was never the same himself after that lesson of compassion and giving his Pa taught him that Christmas Eve.
How do we learn to love our enemies, to bear the burdens of others, to feel empathy, to give of ourselves for others? I’m no expert and fail, myself, on a daily basis. But I might start this Christmas to give a little more than I had planned. I’ll try to remember that others have trials and tribulations in their lives of which I can’t even conceive. I will try to understand and, when necessary, forgive before I attack. Maybe I’ll knock on a neighbor’s door, introduce myself, and let them know I’ll be there for them when needed.
Maybe these will be a small start to regaining some of our social capital. Oh. And I’ll try to remember that we’re in the Season of Giving where the giving is greatest but so also is the need.
Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Newspaper columnist Barry Fetzer lives in Bear Creek. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.