Love your neighbor as yourself
I was raised in a faith tradition where these words were spoken often, yet I never really paused to reflect and think deeply about what I was being called to do. Recent events including the decisions of the United Methodist Church and the tragic events in New Zealand today have left those words ringing in my ears. This time I did pause. I have given this a great deal of thought and it has left me needing to write.
This call to action, "love your neighbor as yourself", begs a close look at two words, love and neighbor. I was taught that love is patient and kind, does not envy, and is not boastful nor conceited or rude. Love is not selfish, not quick to take offense, and keeps no score of wrongs. Love does not gloat over the shortcomings of others. Love takes delight in the truth. If we subscribe to love as it has been described here we must recognize we are not being asked to merely think or believe, we are being called into action to support and lift our fellow human beings.
We are called to be patient in our dealings with others. We are called to be kind in thought, word, and deed in all interactions with others. We are called to lift them up, offer support, without feelings of envy or jealously. We are called to be kind and helpful without conceit, rudeness, judgment of worthiness, or selfish feelings or actions. If we subscribe to this notion of love we avoid any urge to boast of our goodness when we act on the opportunities presented to us in daily life. To love in this way is an active-doing thing and not a saying-thinking thing. To love is to act for the greater good of others without regard for getting credit or accolades and squelching the urge to tell others of our good deeds. To love in this way is to avoid any opportunity to name the flaws of others, and to decline the opportunity to gloat when others fail—even if they are attempting to advance themselves at the expense of others.
When we consider who among us is our neighbor we are not speaking of the person who lives in the next nearest dwelling. Rather, neighbors, from what I was taught are your brothers and sisters in the human family, that is, every other living person. The story of the Good Samaritan was told to allow us to decipher the meaning of the word neighbor. I take the word neighbor to mean anyone we come in contact with, any and every member of the human family.
So what does it mean to love my neighbor as myself? It does not mean that I feel some romantic attraction to the person next door. It isn't that kind of love. It does not mean that you go door to door and hug everyone who greets you. From my perspective--thinking about love as described above and thinking about neighbor in the broadest sense--I believe that at the very least we are called to feel basic human compassion for all human beings. We are called to do this without regard for any descriptor or category humans have created to separate others into groups in an attempt to make ourselves feel superior. I believe that we are called to feel and exercise a deep and abiding respect that honors the humanity, the dignity, and personal identity of each person we meet. We clearly are not called to judge the worthiness of another human; rather we are admonished to love. So what does it mean for us to love our neighbor?
I speak only from my human experience and from my heart. I believe this love calls upon each of us to expect nothing less for others than we expect for ourselves. I believe this love calls upon us to accept nothing less for others than we would accept for ourselves. To love is an action, not a thought, or an ideal. It requires that we not only think, but that we also do. What must we do if we want for others what we expect for ourselves? First we have to think about what it is we expect for ourselves.
Truth be told, I suspect that most of us never articulate this notion. Instead we react when we don't get what we believe we are due. At the core of this question we each expect basic human dignity, personal integrity, identity, safety for self and loved ones. We are indignant when disrespected. We are incensed when treated as less than another. We are angered when our children or our elders are made to feel inferior to others. The question is whether we are equally incensed, indignant, or even angered when this happens to someone we do not know and cherish.
That is what this call to love is about. Do we hold the same expectations for the treatment and rights of others that we have for ourselves? If it is not what we feel and act upon, then we are complicit in the actions of those who fail to love their neighbors as they love themselves.
At the most basic level we are called to live a life of kindness in action. It is a simple thing actually and is easily summed up in a lesson from childhood: The Golden Rule. We do nothing to anyone, ever, other than that which we like done to ourselves or to our beloveds.
Pause here a moment and reflect. Think about what you believe are your essential human needs. Think about what you expect from others with regards to respect, dignity, integrity, trustworthiness, and honesty. Think about times when you have been afforded these by others. Think about how you felt. Think about a time when you have been denied any of these. How did you feel? Consider your most private thoughts and beliefs. Are any of them placing other human beings in a place of less than, less deserving, less human? Consider your actions toward others. Where do you embrace, fully, the humanity of your neighbor? Where do other thoughts and feelings slow, or cripple, those actions? Do you harbor any thoughts or beliefs that place limits on any other individual or group allowing them less than yourself or your beloveds? Do any of your behaviors place limits on any other individual or group allowing them less than yourself or your beloveds?
Now consider our institutions—government, business, schools, hospitals, places of worship, places of recreation, etc.--when and how do they enact this love or fail to do so? Should not the very institutions laying claim to being the embodiment of the greatest love have the greatest demonstration of it? Shouldn't we be able to expect nothing less from our government and faith communities than the living embodiment of this love?