“Your Neighbor as Yourself”–Obsolete?

Sierra Nevada. One of many breath-taking scenes in American wilderness. Classroom material

This phrase reflects a basic idea traced to religion–the Second Commandment: Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. When applied to our secular life, some communities sit in direct opposition–reflecting the angry words of the political divide that carves deep into our neighborhoods. Ugly words bubble up automatically.

Seeking a route to a more hospitable future, I found Union, the story of two college acquaintances—a Republican and a Democrat–who got to become friends on a coast-to-coast road trip. They stopped to see the beauty of America, reflected in the Sierra Nevada above, view some of the ugly disagreements, and noticed how some disagreed but found ways to stay in the conversation, using logical arguments.

In a negative environment, where anything and anyone can be open game for ridicule, we will be left with a divided nation after the 2020 Presidential Campaign ends in November, no matter the final outcome of the election.

Thinking about how America could regain its balance, I ran across Union, a 2020 book by two curious college graduates raised in California—Chris, a speechwriter, and Jordan, businessman/ entrepreneur/ former Marine from opposite political parties. They made three road trips East to West and wore out the Volvo Chris inherited from his 87-year-old grandfather (literally, the engine’s ghost gave up in North Carolina on the last trip). They stopped for beautiful scenery like Yellowstone, Red Rocks Canyon in Colorado, Bryce Canyon in Utah, Casco Bay near San Francisco, but their main objective was to listen to partisans on all sides to see where openings occured to slowly stitch the country back together block by block.

The idea for their American Odyssey began as Chris, the one with the longer hair, wearing a “Berkeley Political Review” tee shirt, sped the Volvo around the black, volcanic rocks of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon hurrying Jordan to Northern California to serve as “man of honor” for his sister’s wedding. The flashing red lights came up behind them, causing Chris something this side of heart palpitations. He had been going well over the posted 70 mph.

The stop progressed from a through-the-window exchange of registration and license to “out of the car” and moved to Chris being seated inside the Idaho State Patrol car. “You say you’re from California, but you have a D.C. license, and Jordan’s car is registered in New York—to a different name (probably his grandfather). . . and you can’t stop shaking. It just doesn’t add up, kid.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” Chris said. “But he is who he says he is, and so am I.”

At this point the trooper gets out of the vehicle after barking, “Stay here,” as he goes to the Volvo to talk with Jordan, who gets out of the car. Chris starts to think next; I will be moved to the backseat where the doors do not open from the inside.  All Chris can see is hand waving and gestures to the car by the officer first, then by Jordan, and a bit of conversation, which he cannot hear. Jordan throws his head back and laughs. Then a smile breaks on the officer’s face. Chris now totally confused as they approach the patrol car together. Turns out they are both Marines—a brotherhood that covers a lot of ground and finds forgiveness with a word of caution for two guys trying to make it to a family wedding.

As the Volvo drove around Oregon’s Crater Lake after escaping the state’s steamy eastern lowlands, Jordan starts to talk about his older sister, Jenna, the bride-to-be. She paved the way for him in school and protected him at his school across town by sending her male senior buddies to have a “talk” with the bully pestering her freshman brother. This came in particularly handy during Bush v. Gore. She went to one of the most liberal high schools in the country, so Republicans were not treasured. She got up at an assembly before 500 people and laid it out. “All of you need to stop it. My parents and my brother are Republicans, and they are still good people.” (Union, p 35)

Jordan saw first-hand in Afghanistan what happens when the rule of law breaks down, leading to endless civil war.  In one of their pre-trip conversations, Jordan said: “I really like the idea of a Constitution as a covenant, something that binds us together in a society of mutual trust and collective responsibility.”

Jordan offered: “One of my professors described it as an intergenerational project in which every American has a role in helping to achieve a more perfect union.” But how does it work?  That is what our struggle will be through the end of 2020 and marching beyond.

The conversation continued as they struggled to determine what this means and what binds us together. Jordan said he could see “almost a spiritual dimension to all of this.” He pointed out that Americans find meaning in a multitude of things—art, culture, work, even politics. But now? We focus on our differences. (Union, p. 5)

Chris said it was obvious to him “something was amiss.” His solution was to go out and see America for himself because how could he talk or write intelligently about the people in the country without meeting more of them.  Jordan invited him on their first-cross country road trip—East to West.

Is “My Neighbor as Myself” an unreasonable pipedream? Are we so nestled in our homes due to Covid 19 that we are ignoring our neighbors? Or by pulling back our responsibilities beyond home are we having more time to converse over the fence, at the end of a dog leash, or through the car window?

Maybe “loving our neighbor” is too high a bar and maybe a downgrade to “tolerate” our neighbor might be an improvement over “despise” or “hate” our neighbor’s politics. Perhaps we can learn to love their lavender tree?

Stick with Past Becomes Present for Part 2 of Union as I dig deeper into the book. How did these frenemies survive the discussions on the road? What did they learn about America while on the road? How could we begin to dialog, rather than talking past each other—when no one is listening?

Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh, Union, A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground (New York: Little Brown and Company) pp. 291

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