Western Friend logo

On Neighbors

Mary Klein
On Neighbors (September 2019)

A lamb in a green pasture is like a kid in a candy shop, or a Friend in bookshop, or a teen at the mall, or a trader at the stock exchange. You’ll see agribusiness associates hectoring the lambs: “You’re so thin! You deserve more! Eat! Eat!” Then all the lambs will gambol around the pastures, nibbling on everything, hither and yon. But my shepherd makes me to lie down. So I lie in the grass and realize I don’t want anything.

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.” James Naylor (1660)

So there they are: exaltation and cruelty, and that old contrarian, evil. If I’m ever going to have any hope of outliving wrath and contention, I’ll at least have to get up and face them.

I’m always surprised by how few faces in the crowd I recognize whenever I feel led to petition decision-makers with my grievances. Sometimes scores, sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands of people are there, and I rarely recognize anybody. It both thrills and disturbs me to launch my body into that flow of people, to merge with a mass of strangers, to feel the pulsing reverberations of footsteps and chanting and song. The reverberations sink into my bones. My neighbors become myself.

As I walk, the still waters refresh me. As I walk, the hard knocks of experience direct me. I walk in the name of truth and justice and kindness, with my unknown neighbors, into our unknowable future, into the shadows of all sorts of threats – obvious threats and nameless threats, immediate and chronic and clandestine threats. I walk remembering, as Mike Yarrow put it, “Courage is simply the everyday work of managing our fears.”

In Madeleine Thien’s intimate and sweeping novel of twentieth-century China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the character Ai-ming describes thousands of people living day and night on the concrete ground of Tiananmen Square in 1989, “. . . with almost nothing to shelter them from the sun or rain. During those six weeks of demonstrations, she had felt at home in China; she had understood, for the first time, what it felt like to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside millions of others.” And a voice from the previous generation remembers, “. . . there was famine everywhere. In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, the true face of our Revolution was revealed. . . Every day we woke up and cursed our leaders, the Revolution and history . . .” And the composer, suspected of counter-revolutionary tendencies, reflects, “He had been listening to Bach again. How had this composer from the West turned away from the linear and found his voice in the cyclical, in canons and fugues, in what Bach referred to as God’s time and in what the ancient Song and Tang scholars saw as the continual reiterations of the past, the turning of the wheel of history? Campaigns, revolutions themselves, arrived in waves, ending only to start again.”

Inside the swirling sweep of history, a human has a choice: to turn one’s attention towards the promises of empire or towards the voice that Naylor called “everlasting love unfeigned.” Those green pastures are indeed owned by agribusiness monopolies and Central Party Ministries and coldblooded drug cartels. Our enemies are the delusions that persuade us to choose empire over love: the delusion that nothing is worse than death, the delusion that I have the right to feel good, the delusion that people should want to do what I want them to.

Now there’s a table laid before me: a banquet of mind-benders. The thing is, I have to approach my enemies to be served that banquet. And then my mind can open. And then my love can overflow. And then I can find my way home.

Psalm 23 Nonviolence Activism

Return to "On Neighbors" issue