Who Is My Neighbor?

So, Jennifer and I are sitting in one of our favorite cafes in Bridgeport when a big white dog saunters in. The weather’s nice, and the auto body place down the street has its own dog — a elderly Alsatian who calmly sits in front of the shop sometimes, but occasionally patrols the street — so I don’t worry much about dogs.

But, apparently, the big white dog was not supposed to be out of its yard. And certainly not in a coffee shop. So the owner took charge and went after the animal.

An older woman sat at a table near us. And to no one in particular, she snorted her disapproval.

“A male that hasn’t been neutered,” she shook her head slightly. “Nothing but trouble. What’s that dog doing out? Someone should call the authorities. That dog could wander out into the street and get itself killed.”

She sat there the entire time as the owner took the dog back to its home, next door.

The incident was a small thing in a big city like Chicago, but also indicative. I think of the parents who’ve faced police and child protective services for letting their kids play outside unattended or walk some distance to school or the library or a convenience store. (These things were commonplace when I grew up in the 1970s…) No doubt the woman sitting there with her coffee and her disapproval believed she was right, and that she was doing something valuable and even necessary as she signaled both her displeasure and her belief that what “ought to be done” involved the “calling of authorities.”

All the while, the shop owner took the dog home.

I focus a lot on love — it’s in the title of my book, after all — because that kind of judgment, and those kinds of recommendations, rarely seem to actually help anyone. They certainly aren’t grounded in anything remotely resembling love. Our moral disapproval, our tongue-clucking and our desire that “something should be done” or “authorities should be called” is not an expression of real concern for safety and welfare, much less love, even as it pretends to be. It’s a harsh judgment, one that does little good for anyone — especially the one judged.

In fact, sometimes such judgement concern gets people killed.

I can imagine a priest and a Levite, walking the road to Jericho, coming upon a man beaten half to death, crossing to the other side of the road, muttering “something ought to be done” and “it probably served him right, walking this road all by himself, all while doing nothing themselves and ignoring the fact they too walk this road alone. What mattered was not moral judgment, but action rooted in love to serve and care for the one met on the road.

Because sometimes your neighbor is a big, white, lost dog.

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