Applying the imperative, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is central in Christian ethics.
It draws directly on Jesus’ teachings (see, for example, Matthew 22:36-40), which draw directly on the Hebrew Scriptures (see, for example, Leviticus 19:18).
One of the most well-known texts addressing this calling is the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37), where “an expert in the law” famously asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
It seems that everyone (Christian or not, religious or not) has voiced this inquiry in some form or fashion.
Perhaps this reveals an inherent, universal desire to qualify an unqualified imperative, which inevitably results in persons and groups being excluded from the scope of this commandment.
The tendency is seen in ever-expanding budget deficits and refusals to acknowledge their negative impact on future generations as well as the rise of populist movements calling nations to turn inward and care only for their own needs (usually at the expense of helping solve global challenges and caring for “the least of these”).
It is demonstrated in the United Kingdom exiting the European Union, border walls being built to keep out immigrants (both refugees and economic migrants), the announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and the continued stream of “America First” declarations.
Recent comments by Joe Scarborough, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” exemplified this perspective.
After saying he didn’t like the “America First” philosophy, Scarborough went on to essentially espouse its foundational ideology.
He rejected the notion that the U.S. “has a responsibility as citizens of the world” to address global ills and then declared, “We are not citizens of the world. We are citizens of the United States. We have one interest, and that’s making this country stronger, safer, better.”
Scarborough continued, “We don’t want to be a part of all these alliances to help other people. I don’t want to be in the Paris Accords to help the world. I want to be in the Paris Accords to help America.”
At least he was self-aware enough to admit, “It’s very selfish, my view of the world.”
Sadly, his perspective seems to be widely held – transcending U.S. parties and stretching around the globe.
Even President Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union, expressed a similar mindset in framing his speech around the theme of “winning the future.”
The common principle tying these incidents together is a “me first” or “my nation first” mindset in which the notion of being “our brothers’ [and sisters’] keeper” is rejected.
A sense of responsibility for the common good of the world and everyone in it takes a back seat to immediate progress for the individual person, group or nation.
Henry George (1839-1897), whatever one might think about his proposed remedies, rightly observed in his book, “Progress and Poverty” (1879), “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury and make sharper the contrast between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent.”
Christians need a rejuvenated commitment to our foundational calling to love our neighbor – anyone, anywhere in need of help – in light of the growing popularity of placing self-interest over and above, and even at the expense of, the global common good.
Perhaps the most widely neglected group of neighbors is the yet-unborn generations who will live with the future consequences (positive or negative) of our present actions.
Baptist social reformer Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) recognized this reality in his “A Theology for the Social Gospel” (1917), writing, “One of the greatest tasks in religious education … is to spread in society a sense of the solidarity of successive generations and a sense of responsibility for those who are to come after us and whom we are now outfitting with the fundamental conditions of existence.”
Robert Parham (1953-2017), EthicsDaily.com’s founder, emphasized the same point in his first book, “Loving Neighbors Across Time” (1991), “Historically, most Christians have thought about love for neighbor in terms of space. We must think about love for neighbor in terms of time. … We must see those who will live in the year 2050 as our neighbors, as real neighbors.”
He added, “If we would embrace this larger definition of neighbor love, we would put into place concrete programs which demonstrate our genuine care for those of the future.”
This biblical emphasis on unbounded love for neighbor, which transcends boundaries of both space and time, and challenges any expression of “me first” or “my nation first” mentality, is needed more than ever.
So-called “progress” driven by an “America first,” “winning the future,” “we are not citizens of the world” mindset is not sustainable because its foundations are insecure. “The tower leans from its foundations,” George observed, “and every new story but hastens the final catastrophe.”