How do you make peace with someone who has sworn to erase you from the face of the earth? How do you become accepted as a neighbor? This is the question the Gibeonites wrestle in the ninth chapter of the Book of Joshua. The Gibeonites end up relying on deception to be taken in as alien neighbors and servants, not so they will rise up and slaughter the Israelites, but truly to preserve their lives and those of the people they love. For this deception, the Israelites make them a permanent class of slaves – contravening another law given to them in the desert, and among the issues later to be addressed by a variety of prophets when hard times befall the Israelites. For the first time since becoming people who have a place and possession of land, the Israelites have to figure out some way of living with their neighbors.
We have a hint at the end of the previous chapter that this is a growing reality, since there is a need to instruct the aliens residing amongst them in their culture and ways.
“Who is my neighbor?” is an old religious question, and one, in 1400 BCE, when the historical events retold through the Book of Joshua are happening, is connected directly to where one lives. Deities are most often in 1400 BCE connected to particular places and peoples, which is part of the reason why the psalms, among many other parts of the Bible, refers to the God of gods and there’s a lot of contest among these deities lived out among men. Purging Canaan of other forms of worship was a well-established way to claim a land for a particular people and their understandings of divinity. But people who worshipped differently from you were not your neighbor, because they would live under different rules and in a very different culture.
Wars of religion are also wars about who will be my neighbor: whom can I live in peace with, learn from, teach, and live a good life? Interfaith dialogue is founded on the premise that we are neighbors and need to learn how to live with each other, while not forsaking the beliefs and practices that make us who we are. Interfaith dialogue means sharing differences as well as finding commonalities. It is something that calls us into shared practices of compassion and justice in our communities, of developing friendships, and of being uncomfortable and stretching to accept our discomfort. More than a century of interfaith dialogue has taught us that people who worship differently from ourselves are very much our neighbors, even with different cultures, even in living with different values.
Yet in many American cities, suburbs and towns, people neither know nor cherish their neighbors. What would it mean to really know your neighbor? How would your life change? How might theirs?
Becoming a better neighbor today, as you meet and engage people today, how might your relationship with that person change if you treated them as a neighbor, a friend?