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“The Ninth Commandment Renewed: You Shall Walk in Your Neighbor's Shoes”
by Rev.Carlton Elliott Smith, May 1, 2011
We’re talking today about the Ninth Commandment. But which one? In preparing for this sermon, I came to see that there was a Catholic version and a Protestant one, the latter coming from the Book of Exodus and the former from Deuteronomy. The Catholic version says, “Thou shalt not covet”, while the Protestant version directs, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” We use the Protestant version, so the “original” Ninth Commandment we work with is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”
Two questions emerge readily: “What does it mean to bear false witness?” and “Who is considered a neighbor?” Old English Compound word neah (near) + bur (dweller), someone who lives close by. In this case, we can say that bearing false witness had primarily to do with standing before a judge, though today we might also think of lying or gossiping as ways of breaking the Ninth Commandment.
And who is the neighbor? In Leviticus 19:18, we are reminded to “love your fellow as yourself” – to love your neighbor as yourself. Does that mean that it’s okay to bear false against non-relatives, people of a different religion, people of a different nation, or people of a different ethnicity ...?
Today is Yom Hashoah, the day set aside for the remembrance of the Holocaust, and we can be grateful for neighbors during World War II who were willing to put their own lives at risk to save Jews and other people at danger of being exterminated. Some of those neighbors were our Unitarian forebears.
As far as the Ninth Commandment renewed, I first heard something like it as a child, said to be a Native American proverb: “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
I found a popular derivative on this theme on the internet. Jack Handey, known for his “Deep Thoughts” segments on Saturday Night Live would say, “Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. Then when you do criticize that person, you'll be a mile away and have his shoes.”
Also online I found a forum where someone asked the question, “Can you walk a mile in your neighbors shoes?” and here are some of the answers:
Then one respondent took a more serious approach to the question and said, “I have been rich, poor, in with the in-crowd, out of favor with them also, sick, well, gained, lost, been loved, been abandoned, used, abused, and a bunch of other things, so with some exceptions, I have pretty much walked in many shoes, so I would say yes.”
In our global community, who is the neighbor?
Devastation in the South, and especially in Tuscaloosa, Alabama …
And tragedy after tragedy we see how closely we identify with people in crisis across the country and around the globe.
How shall we treat the neighbor?
The website Islamicoccasions.com states that the Prophet Muhammad taught that a "neighbor" is not just the one next door but includes all those up to forty houses in all directions - effectively a whole neighborhood.
It goes further to offer tips on getting along with one’s non-Muslim neighbors – tips that might be useful to us as Unitarian Universalists, such as:
Another neighborly thing to do would be to participate in a visit with one of the people working on the Capital Campaign …
I know I’m somewhat hit-and-miss when it comes to being a very good neighbor. I’ll tell you a bit about my situation:
I live in the Barcroft Apartments just down George Mason at Colombia Pike. It’s a wildly diverse neighborhood, mostly made up of brown-skinned and olive-skinned people born on other continents. I almost never see them, much less their shoes, or very much their lives. The most common area is the laundry room, which has only a few machines, so I try to be there only when I don’t have to compete for washers or dryers.
I have to pass by three doors from the entrance of my building to get to my unit. I only have the vaguest gleanings about the lives of the people on the other side of them: The grandmother who speaks no English and watches her young granddaughter until the mother picks her up; the beautiful harmonies in another language I once heard behind the door closest to mine, like some ritual celebration; the young men I’ve seen once or twice outside the unit below mine. Two floors below, on the back of the building, there are African American neighbors who I know only by their outdoor conversations and the cigarette smoke that sometimes wafts through my bedroom when the windows are open. I’ve never seen them face-to-face.
Though I haven’t reached out to my immediate neighbors, I have been neighborly with others in the complex, by helping a woman on the sidewalk carry her groceries, and by getting a ball from under the wheel of a stopped car in the street for a group of children.
My current situation is much different from growing up where my neighbors were my relatives – grandparents, cousin, aunt, uncle – and friends of the family, who, if their phone was out, would come to our house to make a call. Who we would play dodge-ball or kickball or croquet with on the lawn we shared.
The ninth commandment renewed is a call to empathy and compassion.
Part of what has happened with our immigration focus this year is that through the stories we have heard from the people we’ve encountered – the undocumented youth who dream of becoming U.S. citizens, the people on both sides of the US-Mexico border in The Death of Josseline – we become aware of other people’s circumstances, and hopefully become more understanding of the choices being made.
Similar to the journey Rev. Michael and about a dozen adult members of the congregation made to Guatemala in the fall, the young people who went on the New Orleans service trip have returned having met a bunch of new neighbors – people whose local community we were a part of for a few days, and who now live close to our hearts, and even in our hearts.
The old saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” mostly doesn’t work for me. To my ear, this sounds like God pours out blessings on some people in the neighborhood and withholds them from others, and the gratitude of the blessed ones comes at the expense of the difficult circumstances of others. What seems truer is this: If I had all my neighbor’s circumstances, I would have my neighbor’s life. If I had her body, her family, her experiences, her sensibilities, I would also have all that worked in her life and all that didn’t, with all the smart choices she made and all her regrets.
The ninth commandment renewed, then, is also a call for humility. From time to time, we get a window into each other’s lives – some new insight that has us re-evaluate our opinions of others. As you heard this morning, our youth came back with many insights. “She was separated from her family for weeks.” “He was so depressed that he wanted to take his own life.” “She waited for rescue on top of the expressway for days without food.” And yet, anything we learn is only a fraction of the totality of that person’s life. When we stand before each other, we are in the presence of great mystery – a mystery ultimately as unfathomable as the Universe itself. The same is true when we stand before a mirror. To be honest, I often don’t even understand myself, and I’ve walked in my shoes my whole life. How can I hope to know someone else’s deepest motivations, dreams, hopes and fears? How can I be so quick to judge, or even to judge at all?
I wonder if the lighthouse will shine on me?
Not long ago, I was in a conversation with a friend, and I heard myself say something uncharitable about someone we both know. Not something vicious or mean-spirited, just a kind of flippant, off-the-cuff remark that gets a knowing chuckle and points to something true while not being true itself. I had, in fact, born false witness against my neighbor. My conscience really went to work on me, so much so that I had to go back and clean up what I said. I called my friend back to acknowledge what I’d done. That led to a more thoughtful conversation about the circumstances of the person who had been the subject of the previous conversation, a kind of walking a mile in that neighbor’s shoes.
Like some of the online respondents to the question “Can you walk in your neighbor’s shoes?” we can take the question literally and speculate on the relative sizes of feet. We can look at the question metaphorically and compare our own trials and struggles to those of others. We can also listen to the stories of others with our hearts open, listen for the disappointments inside their complaints, and try to understand. Our understanding will never be complete, but for every time we are willing to get into that other person’s world, we will be on the journey toward wholeness, building the world we dream of.
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