Written by Nora Johnson and Justin Duyao
Even 17 years after the last episode of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” aired on PBS, the lyrics of the show’s theme song are still familiar. In many ways, Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister turned television staple, has set the standard of neighborliness in the American mind.
In an essay for The New York Times, Davy Rothbart recounted a conversation with Rogers in 2001, the same year the last episode of his show aired. Rothbart was working on a story about neighborly conflict and decided to seek the advice of America’s most recognizable neighbor. Together, he and Rogers listened to recordings of disputes between several of Rothbart’s Chicago-area neighbors. Rothbart said it was clear the members of his community were afraid of having conversations with one another but could not understand why.
“Perhaps we think that there are some people in this world whom I can’t ever communicate with, and so I’ll just give up before I try,” Rogers pondered. “And how sad it is to think that we would give up on any other creature who’s just like us.”
This sentiment is evident not only between individuals who live in the same neighborhoods and cities, but also between the U.S., its neighbor-states and many other developing countries throughout the world.
According to a BBC World Service poll, citizens of emerging economies are increasingly identifying themselves as global rather than national citizens, while the trend in industrialized nations seems to be heading in the opposite direction. In other words, Americans are less likely to consider the needs of the world as their own.
“We live in a very individualistic culture,” said Ken Graves, director of Global Outreach, an organization on Harding’s campus that equips students for worldwide missions.
Graves explained it is easy to gravitate toward people to whom we relate, who believe the same things and hold the same opinions, because this minimizes conflict, especially when it comes to religious beliefs.
“[As Christians] we don’t like to be accused any more than we already are of being obnoxious, belligerent, intolerant, judgmental,” Graves said. “To not appear judgmental, to not push our religion on anyone else, we recoil — we hide behind our personal faith.”
The problem with gravitating toward a singular group with which you naturally identify is the tendency that usually follow — to favor that group above others. As Graves identified, this tendency can be innocent at first, part of an effort to avoid disagreement within a pluralistic culture; but the longer it is allowed to persist in a culture, the more deeply it separates peoples and accentuates the differences that separate them.
According to Penn State University’s definition of ethnocentricity, though communal and tribal prioritization is natural, it cannot in itself be conducive to progress or growth within today’s inherently diverse community.
“The idea behind ethnocentrism is that people who are not part of our group are perceived as being all the same because they aren’t one of us, so we treat them differently (usually not as well),” PSU reported.
Graves emphasized that, within the Christian community, any comfortability with ethnocentrism directly contradicts the aim of the gospel.
“If we are children of God, and God loves the whole world … we have to love the whole world,” Graves said. “We cannot seclude ourselves into this small little community or village and say, ‘I can be a Christian right here.’”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of the fall of 2017, 82 percent of students at Harding are white. Within the 18 percent of minority races represented, there are more than 250 international students from 54 nations, as reported by Harding. At an institution where a single racial majority vastly out-numbers all others, yet so many other people groups are represented, relating to individuals that you might not typically spend time with is vital.
“We should always be a good neighbor. … We don’t have the luxury of saying ‘I’m going to be a good neighbor only to the people in my proximity,’” Graves said.
The second installment of the “Will You Be My Neighbor?” series will appear in the next edition of The Bison, on stands Oct. 19.