Love your neighbor as yourself

Do not separate yourself from the community – Ethics of the Fathers 2:4
Love your neighbor as yourself. – Leviticus 19:18
[The meaning of this verse is] we are obligated to treat all of humanity as if it were one organism. – Malbim

Meditating on these lines today at a workshop on Catholic Identity in a Global World, I was struck anew by the challenge of trying to appropriate ancient wisdom in a post-modern world.

Love your neighbor as yourself – we love the sound of that. It makes no demands on us other than to have a particular set of feelings. Interpreted in a certain way, it is squishy and unchallenging, but it sounds nice. It makes for a good sound byte, and we love sound bytes.

That injunction, at least where it is found in the Jewish and Christian traditions, presupposes a cohesive community in which people care for each other – or at the very least are bound to each other. With the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus famously expanded the boundaries of community beyond his own people of Israel.

We teach that expression to our children. We expect people to live by it and  become frustrated and indignant when they don’t. Are we asking too much? People are supposed to love their neighbors, but we have pulled the rug out from under them.  Community life has been sacrificed to American individualism: are we still supposed to live by a moral code that was given to highly communal people?

I am as guilty as anyone of looking at the people around me as a nuisance from which I can remove myself if I like. In the ancient world – and even the not so ancient – people knew that they were stuck with each other.

Family is a great place to learn about devotional love, if you have a family that is at least passable (as mine is).  Partly because my extended family lived in such close proximity, I was always amazed by people who didn’t see their families often. What do you mean they “don’t get along?” Is that even an option? Fortunately for me my family is very likable, but even when they are not (and I’m not naming any names, Dad) they are my people. I have a responsibility to them.

Accuse me if you want of turning the world on its head, but I believe that we don’t choose community because we love, we choose love because we are in a community. Until our culture gets over the whole “I am only responsible for myself” thing we cannot truly live up to the great commandment. It’s not fair to subject young people to ‘punch-line Christianity’, imagining that faith is made up the catchiest quotes rather than of the hard work of living with each other. Right now we don’t have a setting in which we can live up to many of our most valued Biblical principles. If we are going to continue to hold ourselves to these standards, we should start being honest about what the challenges are, and being honest with ourselves about what we will truly have to sacrifice in order to make it easier for people to be good.

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2 Responses to Love your neighbor as yourself

  1. Emilia says:

    Amen! I think if we have one challenge as Christians or as religious people or as democrats (small d – the kind who believe in universal suffrage) or as Americans or as living creatures on the planet it’s this. To me it is the fundamental challenge of life: learning how we live together and share the abundant but limited resources we have. The American cult of individualism has created an astonishing blind around the fact that this IS what it is to be alive. It is not a moral question – it is the question. How do we live together? I agree so completely that we choose love because we live together (whether we like it or not, whether we think we do or not). Every world religion has some variation on that theme of loving neighbors, of loving others as ourselves, because every society across the globe has figured out at one time or another that the only way we will make it is if we are generous, and forgiving, and if we share, and if we trust.

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