Neighbor-Love Is a Many-Layered Thing

Jesus said that we should love our neighbors, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. As a result, it’s easy to accuse people of not loving their neighbors.

For instance, people who don’t support government action to alleviate poverty are sometimes accused of not loving their neighbors.

Conversely, people who support the role of the state in providing for their neighbors are sometimes accused of the same lack of neighbor-love. Dostoyevsky’s character Father Zosima (in The Brothers Karamazov) wittily remarked that “the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is separately, as separate individuals.”

So who is right?

Well, both and neither. The first thing to note is that loving your neighbor is difficult, and no one has it all figured out. If someone says they do, they’re probably lying.

But that cannot be taken as an excuse for giving up on some aspect of neighbor-love. Instead, we can better love our neighbors if we start by acknowledging that neighbor-love is a multi-leveled thing. There are personal, communal, and societal aspects to loving one’s neighbor. All three of these can be seen in the story that Jesus told to illustrate what it means to love one’s neighbor.

There is an obvious personal aspect to neighbor-love. The Samaritan man helped the victim of the bandits by picking him up and dressing his wounds. He tangibly acted as an individual after seeing his neighbor’s obvious need.

There is also a communal dimension of neighbor-love. Members of the victim’s own Jewish community had failed to adequately love someone who was part of their own community. But there was also an improvised community of sorts. The Samaritan man and the innkeeper together provided a communal safety net for the victim.

Finally, though, there is a societal dimension of neighbor-love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out,

“On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

If we don’t transform the whole road (the whole society, even) in whatever way we are able to, we are also failing to love our neighbors.

That’s a lot of stuff. Loving your neighbors at personal, communal, and societal levels seems like too much for anyone to handle. That’s because it is.

This is where St. Paul’s metaphor of one body with many parts is especially helpful. A short while later in the same letter, he gives his well-known definition of love. It’s a really demanding vision of what love means, but the idea that each part of a larger communal and even social body can play its own role in living up to this practice of love makes it at least a possibility.

That being said, each of us is responsible to do what we can when we can. It won’t do much good to serve at a soup kitchen while advocating for cutting the budgets of agencies that fund the well-being of the very same people eating the soup.

The problem isn’t so much that failing to love your neighbor at one level or another is hypocritical (though hypocrisy isn't great). Instead, the issue is that we can undercut our own efforts to love our neighbors, which will ultimately make us what Paul called clanging cymbals. All of us can do better, but until we acknowledge that neighbor-love has personal, communal, and societal layers we won’t even know how.

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