When I was a small boy living in a rural County Down bungalow in the 1960s, the question posed by the gospel narrative, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ seemed easy to answer. The Ferguson family lived a field away, the Rooney family had a farmyard which was visible from our living room window and the Lowries and two other families lived in the nearby terrace of houses known as Calvert’s Row.Chi. It is all too easy to mingle online only with those who share our views on politics, culture and religion. What is more, we can easily fall into the trap of expressing anger, disgust or anguished incomprehension on social media towards those whose culture is entirely different from and even opposed to ours.
Of course, disagreements of opinion are natural in this life and anger is an expression that may be legitimate and often needs expressed but I know that (for instance) as a Remainer in the debate over exiting from the European Union I gathered a circle of commentators and likeminded virtual friends around me and tired swiftly of arguing with Leavers and spurned or even ‘unfollowed’ them. Likewise, as someone who opposed the politics of ex-President Trump, I was prone to build a neighbourly virtual / virtuous circle of those who agreed with me and then I used that circle to lament the moral failure of Christians who supported him.
I wasn’t even venturing down the road to Jericho where I might meet someone of a different culture lying at the side of the road, or if did, the chances are I would have ignored them.
Just remember that in the electronic neighbourhood, we all wear our cultural clothing just as much as members of any religious sect in New Testament Palestine. I have learned to spot a Brexit supporter straightaway by the politicians he refers to in his tweets and I can see the EU flag on a Remainer profile page. I have become expert at recognising the more extreme Trump Republican by the Biblical verses he or she flaunts (out of context in my opinion, of course) or by the Confederate flag on a profile.
The chance to get to know our actual neighbour in ‘real time’ and in a familiar place is often unavailable on-line. The kind of opportunity that is thrown up by conversations to mend an argument over the garden fence - or to patch up angry disputes over parking rights in the street where I live - is very hard to find in the constricting realm of politically heated cyberspace. Humanising the troubling virtual neighbour is very hard.
So, I think that Christian believers must keep on inspecting their electronic world. Should the same rules apply when I am in front of my computer screen as in the street where I live? Should the same sort of questions trouble my consciousness? ‘Who in this world-wide web is my neighbour?’ And ‘How do I treat them in a way that is consonant with Christ’s famous parable?’
Philip Orr is historian, playwright and poet, who divides his time between Hertfordshire and his native Northern Ireland.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.