Who Is My Neighbor?

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Last week I met a woman who shared with me her own childhood story about being a neighbor. As we were making plans for her husband's funeral, this Japanese-American woman told me this story about what had happened in the days following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. She said, "We were neighbors before the war, before that day. I was just the kid next door. I played and went to school with my friends. But after the day in the spring of 1942 when the army posted the signs in our neighborhood, my family had 48 hours to pack up and move out on stake-bed trucks. My father was a fisherman and out at sea so federal agents picked him up at the dock. He was a suspect just because he had a boat. He never came home that night. We didn't see him for eleven months. It was scary."

Born a U.S. citizen, she was a neighbor one day, an alien the next. I officiated at her husband's funeral on Friday. He received a flag. He had fought for his country--the United States--in World War II in Italy and Germany, while his siblings, also U.S. citizens, were imprisoned as suspect aliens in a concentration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming.


The deep scarring effects of President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 still impact my ministry today--59 years after the fact. When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, he set in motion one of the great tragedies of 20th century American history, but tragedies befall us all. Tragedies and injustices are no surprise to a biblical people. The infection of the fall reaches to the farthest edge of our humanity. Lines are drawn, divisions are cast, and aliens we become--alien to one another, as the fall makes us alien to God. And so neighbors become aliens.

It really wasn't a stroke of the president's pen on February 19 that set neighbor against neighbor in 1942. The West Coast had suffered years of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian propaganda in the newspapers of the Hearst media empire. Anti-Asian prejudice became legalized in legislation prohibiting naturalization, and by 1924, the Asian Exclusion Act prohibited any further immigration at all. What culminated in a wartime incarceration was a horrific and devastating tragedy. These American families were torn apart. These American citizens died. Spirits were crushed and some have never recovered.

But other cruel tragedies have been just as vile--or even worse! In our own country, far more unfair and brutal was legalized slavery. And the list could go on and on.


In wartime, sometimes there are those who rise up as a light welcoming the stranger into safe harbor. In the United States, Quakers freed their own slaves and helped establish the Underground Railroad. In Europe, Oskar Schindler, a Nazi, spent his own fortune to save 1,200 Jews from Auschwitz gas chambers. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, saved more than 100,000 Jews by giving them false passports. Corrie Ten Boom and her family in the Dutch Underground Resistance Movement hid Jews in a counterfeit room in their house. Miep Gies, an Austrian woman, and her husband helped to hide the young Anne Frank and her family in an Amsterdam attic.

In 1942, out West, one man stood boldly for the Japanese. Colorado's Governor Ralph Carr defied the spirit of the day with all of its fear, ignorance, and dishonest scapegoating. He welcomed Japanese-Americans to his state. He took a stand that allowed my father to leave his concentration camp in Gila River, Arizona, to attend the University of Denver. After the war, Ralph Carr lost his re-election effort. It was the end of his political career, but today he is memorialized in Colorado by the Japanese-American community.


Two years earlier: In Eastern Europe in 1940, one Japanese man stood boldly for the Jews. Chiune Sugihara was a bright diplomat who had served in China, learned Russian, served in Finland, and ended up in a solo diplomatic post in Lithuania. He had also become an Orthodox Christian along the way. And he was fond of saying, "I may have to disobey my government, but if I don't, I would be disobeying God." At his wife Yukiko's strong urging, in August of 1940, he signed over 300 visas a day, saving over 6,000 Polish Jews from the coming holocaust. This act of his defiance ended his success as a diplomat. He lived the rest of his life simply, dying in 1986. But many Jewish people--particularly young people today--remember Sugihara with deep affection as the Japanese Oskar Schindler.


Two years earlier: In Nanjing, in 1938, one man stood boldly for the Chinese. John Rabe in Nanjing. The Rape of Nanjing was a horrific massacre in which 300,000 Chinese were brutally tortured and murdered and 20,000 women were raped by the Japanese army. But an equal number were saved through the Nanking Safety Zone. A Presbyterian missionary in Nanjing, W. Plumer Mills, instigated the zone, copying a plan that was begun in Shanghai. Rabe had lived and raised a family in Nanjing for 30 years, and he had no desire to flee as the Japanese occupation approached. The Japanese allowed him to stay, and through his efforts of defiance and bravery he helped to rescue 300,000 Chinese from the Japanese brutality. Author Irish Chang called him the Oskar Schindler of China. Rabe was German. And he was the head of the Nazi party in Nanjing.


In Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, the punchline zings us with a "Gotcha!" as the Samaritan turns out to be the neighbor. The religious, holy-minded priest and the Levite missed the opportunity. People like the priest and the Levite look down their noses at the Samaritans. Samaritans were those northerners who had intermarried, whose religion and race were not as pure. That is precisely who Jesus gives us as the Good Neighbor.

In Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, the neighbor to the alien in need is easy to recognize in hindsight. But I am concerned for us, for whether we can recognize the alien in need in our midst, in this present calling moment.

Our blindspots are by nature hard for us to be alert to. Our blindspots require a concentration, and we must be open to assistance and perhaps correction if we are to compensate and safely negotiate the world. Here's a blindspot example from my own local daily newspaper. The front page center article of the Long Beach Press Telegram from August 28, 1942, reads in large, bold letters, "Church Once Used by Japs Serves New Boy's Club." And immediately under that headline is this caption: "Three years of planning by a group of leading Long Beach citizens will be culminated early next month with the organization of a Boy's Club designed to serve all boys regardless of race or creed." I'm sure that those leading Long Beach citizens would have denied discriminating unjustly. I would guess that they were fine church-going folk.

But loving the alien is a clear calling for the follower of Christ. In Paul's list of "Marks of the True Christian" in Romans chapter 12, we are told in verse 12 to "extend hospitality to strangers." What we translate as hospitality here is Paul's use of a Greek word philoxenia, which is literally the love of aliens. In English we may often hear the word xenophobia--the fear of aliens--but we rarely hear the word xenophilia, an actual English word meaning the love of aliens. Hospitality is more than tea and crackers. Paul's list of Marks of the True Christian opens with the easily recognized philadelphia in verse 10. Paul says practice brotherly love--philadelphia--which all the more sets up the listener for the closing of that list where philoxenia--alien love--in verse 12 leaps off the page. It screams out at me: Love the ALIEN! THIS is Christian hospitality. THIS is what a Good Neighbor does. LOVE THE ALIEN.

The congregation that I serve now was once a Japanese-language mission church in Long Beach, California. It is that church that was evacuated and appropriated by the Boys Club in 1942. Today we are an English-language ministry that is very culturally and ethnically diverse. But we still have a visible majority of Japanese-American church members. And many of the Japanese-American members were in concentration camps themselves, so our church people like that story about Governor Ralph Carr--where the Japanese-Americans are the victims. And, of course, people like the Chiune Sugihara story--where a Japanese diplomat and his wife are the heroes. But the John Rabe story plunges the blade: There the Japanese are the most heinous villains of all, and the Nazi--the Samaritan!--is the hero.


My neighbor, the alien, is among us today and I miss her in my blindspots. Would-be neighbors in need go untouched. Opportunities for deep, profound friendship and reconciliation pass us by. Theological aliens sit in churches on opposite sides of the streets. Cultural aliens live next door in our neighborhoods. International students--the brightest and best in their homeland--are aliens here and sometimes bewildered and lonely. The worker in the cubicle near mine who always eats lunch alone is a neighbor who may be aching for friendship. How do I recognize my neighbor in need? How can I be a good neighbor? How do we recognize the alien in our midst? How can we be hospitable to Palestinian Christians, to urban Native American Christians, to new Asian immigrants suffering at the hands of established Asian immigrants?

Jesus leaves us with this question that the young lawyer had: WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?

Let us pray.

Holy God, open our eyes to the stranger before us. Help us to see our neighbor; help us to be the good neighbor lest we pass you by when you are hungry, thirsty, or lonely, and so miss a time of sweet fellowship with you. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

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