Jesus said that everything normative, all of Christian ethics, hangs on just two rules: Love God, and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). St. John wrote, in plain and simple Greek, that we can not fulfill the first without having done the second. One who does not love the brother/sister/neighbor does not love God (1 John 4:20-21). Neighbor-loving is essential to the Christian life.
Much has been written about “the greatest commandments,” and some humans are admirable keepers of the law. Those who love God and neighbor particularly well we call saints. But not many of us qualify to have the “St.” initials placed before our given name. We call ourselves Christians but too often fail to do even the basics. Neighbor-loving is basic Christian ethics, and yet it is hard.
Neighborliness is not so hard, even within the rampant anonymity of contemporary urban or suburban living. It’s not difficult to share tools with the nice young couple who moved in next door, or bring poinsettias to the neighbors at Christmastime, or send a sympathy card to the new widower down the street. Indeed, they all would do the same for me. Why couldn’t the great commandments have been to love God and be neighborly? Maybe then I could be St. Tarris someday.
But neighborliness is not the same as neighbor-loving.
When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with a story. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the neighbor turns out to be someone who surely does not live next door and who might not even be welcome in our neighborhood. The Good Samaritan neighbor is not “our kind” or kin, not of our tribe. She is from the other side of the tracks. He is from south of the border. This sort of neighbor might speak our language but not like we do.
If I share my tools with a Samaritan, will he give them back? If I give money for food, will it go for booze instead? If I send a gift, will she pawn it for drugs? What if I go to their neighborhood, or even move there, and get mugged by a stranger-neighbor? And if I were to see someone who had been mugged lying on the street or in the gutter, what in the world would I do?
Neighborliness is manageable, but neighbor-loving seems way too hard.
Why bother then? Other than the rule’s centrality to authentic Christianity, why go beyond neighborliness and actually love your neighbor?
Jesus provides only an indirect answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But the rationale for neighbor-loving is given directly in every scriptural occurrence of the commandment.
Why love your neighbor?
1) Because we too once were strangers, refugees, immigrants, aliens—in Egypt or Persia, in Palestine-Israel or America. And besides, “I am the LORD”—so just do it (Leviticus 19:18,34).
2) Be a neighbor-lover so as to “enter into life” and so that you may have eternal life (Matthew 19:16-19).
3) Neighbor-love because everything else hangs on it—all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:39-40).
4) Do so because there is no greater commandment; love of God and neighbor is worth more than all offerings and sacrifices one could give (Mark 12: 28-33).
5) Neighbor-love so as to live (Luke 10:27-28).
6) Do it because neighbor-love is the fulfilling of God’s law (Romans 13:9-10).
7) “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).
8) Why love our neighbor? Because if we do so, we do well; but if we don’t neighbor-love, we commit sin—we are “convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8-9).
Love of neighbor is essential to Christian living, but it is hard. Neighbor-loving is hard, but it is not impossible.
“Sisters of Selma” is a PBS documentary just released (February 2007) about events in Selma, Ala., that precipitated the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The film-maker’s focus is on several Missouri nuns who went down to Alabama in response to the white racist violence of “Bloody Sunday.” They went down there peacefully to break one law and actively to fulfill another.
Sister Rosemary Flanigan, now of the Center for Practical Bioethics, was one of those “Sisters of Selma.” During the documentary’s premiere showing in Kansas City, Sr. Rosemary told a public radio audience of her neighbor-loving venture more than forty years ago. She recalled that she and other civil rights marchers were stopped by local officials and forbidden to go further. So they all knelt in the street to pray the “Our Father.” A gentleman offered the habited nun his coat on which to kneel, but Sister politely refused. “I told him that I wanted to return to St. Louis with the dust of Selma on my habit.” And so she did.
Another poignant neighbor-loving moment in the film is replayed from original footage of newsreel taken on the sidewalks of Selma. A raging white policeman stands face to face with a much calmer young African American man. With weapon in hand, the officer threatens violence and yells epithets in response to the marcher’s request to walk past him to the courthouse. The younger and smaller man asks the policeman if at the very least he would consent to pray for or with the marchers. There is an immediate angry refusal and an injunction to “pray for your own kind” while the white man prays for and with his own.
With a photographer’s camera still running, the African-American Christian says something imperceptible to his adversary about love. The law enforcement officer, presumably Christian also, screams at his across-the-bridge neighbor to go love someone else, that he doesn’t love n_____s and doesn’t need a n_____’s love. “I will love whoever I want.”
Neighbor-loving is hard, but it is not optional—not for followers of the Christ, neither then nor now.
Neighbor-loving is hard, but it’s not impossible. Numerous saints and saints-in-the-making have shown us the way.
Neighbor-loving is not mere neighborliness. It includes the people next door, but extends to those most difficult for us to love: those not like us, who may not like us, whom we do not like, and whom we yet are commanded to love like neighbors.
Christ, have mercy. And may the God who loves us all also help us neighbors to love.
Tarris Rosell is professor of pastoral theology–ethics and ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, and holds the Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics.