I can tell you the exact moment that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean lost my vote. It was January 11, 2004 when an audience member at an Iowa primary forum asked Dean to stop “mean mouthing” President George W. Bush.
According to news reports, Dale Ungerer, a retiree from Hawkeye, Iowa, complained that Dean and other Democratic presidential candidates were causing more divisions in the country through their constant bashing of Bush.
“Please tone down the garbage, the mean mouthing, the tearing down of your neighbor and being so pompous,” Ungerer told the former Vermont governor and then-Democratic front-runner. “You should help your neighbor and not tear him down.”
To which Dean replied, “George Bush is not my neighbor.”
To his credit, Ungerer shot back, “Yes, he is.”
Dean ordered Ungerer to sit down so he could have his say.
For all the good things Dean brought to the race – a fresh view and a constant anti-war stand – it was his refusal to see Bush as his neighbor that tore it for me. I could not vote for a man who did not understand the concept of neighbor.
Of course George W. Bush is Dean’s neighbor. Bush is my neighbor. I am Bush’s neighbor. Dick Cheney is my neighbor. Colin Powell is my neighbor. Saddam Hussein is my neighbor. Osama bin Laden is my neighbor. We are all one in God’s eyes. Jesus commands us to recognize our status as neighbors and act accordingly – to love them as much as we love ourselves.
But, we, like the lawyer who quizzed Jesus in Luke’s gospel are searching for the loophole. We want to know “who is my neighbor?” in the hope that there will be someone – anyone – that we can scratch off the list. There must be someone. Those we don’t like or at the very least those who do great evil like mastermind the flying of planes into buildings!
However, there are no loopholes. Everyone we meet and everyone we hear about are our neighbors. Arabs, Israelis, Chinese, Japanese, North and South Koreans, Indians, Iowans, Cubs fans, lefties, blondes, conservative Christians and drag queens. They are all neighbors. They are all to be loved as we love ourselves.
Rejoicing in doing the impossible
I can honestly tell you that I have struggled with this essay. I don’t want Osama bin Laden to be my neighbor. I don’t want George W. Bush to be my neighbor. I find the actions of both men to be despicable. I find their ideologies to be odious and in a word, “evil.” I have to love them like I love myself? The very idea is repulsive. How do I tell you that you must love your neighbor – even men like Osama and Bush – when I find the very idea repellant?
I look at our world and I become discouraged. It’s such a messed up place, after all. People are starving while we throw away more food in a day than they might see in their entire lives. People are fighting each other and dying horrible deaths often over age-old feuds that began before any of them were born. People hate each other for no other reason than the color of skin, sexual orientation, political affiliation or place of birth. When you take a close look at the world around us, the seething hatred, the indifference and the desperation in which most people live their lives, who would not end up being discouraged? Loving our neighbor seems impossible, a pipedream, a touchy-feely Pollyanna world where we’re all brothers and sisters and we love each other and never disagree.
But, I’m here to tell you that Jesus calls us to do the impossible. Jesus’ entire life was about presenting us with an impossible task – to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves – and your neighbor is every single person on the face of the earth. Impossible! We cannot do it. There are days we can barely love ourselves, much less our neighbors. There are days we cannot stir good feelings for the person ahead of us in traffic, much less some man whose life of desperation has led him to believe that terrorizing and killing other human beings is the solution to his problems.
This is not a touchy-feely Pollyanna mission that Jesus calls us to perform. Jesus knows he’s asking us to do something impossible. What human in their right mind will love an enemy – say, someone who flies planes into buildings full of innocent people, or exterminates millions of Jews? How can we love people who can do such evil when we can barely stand to look at our boss some days?
But if we seek to follow Jesus’ call, if we truly want to know what Jesus would do – we understand that we are called to do the impossible – to embody that radical love of Jesus Christ. And not just called to do it, but to do it without malice, without frustration, without becoming discouraged, without hopelessness.
My spiritual director told me a story about her nieces and nephews during a recent beach trip. Each evening just before high tide, the kids would gather on the beach and begin digging a hole. Around the hole they would build walls and each night, as they were building, the rising water slowly destroyed their creation. They tried digging tunnels to ward off the rising water. They tried digging trenches to protect their sand castles, but in the end, the water won out. The tide always destroyed their castle. But, my director told me, the children were eager each night to go out and do it all over again. They knew that their efforts would never pay off. They knew they would build in vain because the water would always wash away their creation. But they built anyway. They did it with joy, with love, with patience and with anticipation – not dreading the coming of the tide, but rejoicing in the chance to do it again the next day, and the next, and the next.
Personally, I think these kids are crazy – such dedication to such a futile task! It’s the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Perhaps that’s why people thought Jesus was a crazy coot for telling people to love each other when they’d rather be killing each other.
We’ve so domesticated Jesus and his message that we truly don’t understand how subversive it was then and still is today. We’ve made Jesus our buddy, our sort of cheerleader. We ask “What Would Jesus Do?” knowing full well that we’ll beg off from acting that way because of course, we’re not Jesus. We sing about what a friend we have in Jesus forgetting that our truest friends are the ones who challenge us to be better than we are, not to simply wink and nod at every idea we come up with or condone every action we deem appropriate. But, this is what we have done to Jesus. We’ve neutered him. Instead of a subversive, dangerous Messiah, he’s a puppy dog – loyal and friendly, always ready to be with us when we want him around, but very easy to tie out in the back yard when we don’t want to be bothered.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is a great example of how subversive and radical Jesus’ message was, and how we’ve neutered and twisted that message today. To most church folk, it’s become a quaint story meaning we need to be nice to everyone and be helpful. In legal terms the story has become twisted into “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people who stop and render aid from being sued by the person they are helping. This is certianly not what was on Jesus’ mind when he talked of a “Good Samaritan.” The crux of his message was not one of simply being nice or about protecting ourselves from lawsuits. Instead, this parable is about non-violent social revolution – of turning the very order of the world on its head.
We know the story well. A man is left near death after he falls among thieves on a dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The first person to pass by after this horrible crime is a priest – but he passes by on the other side of the road. Who knows why? Maybe he was headed to temple and didn’t know whether the man was dead or alive. If the man were dead, then the priest would not be able to perform his duties because touching a dead body would make him unclean. Best not to take the chance.
The next person to come by is a Levite, these are religious leaders of the day who assisted the priest. He too passes by on the other side. Jesus gives no explanation, but perhaps he was afraid the robbers were still nearby or that he’d be late for temple and the priest before him would be upset with him. Best not to take any chances.
The next person to come along is the Samaritan, and here is where the story gets hairy for the lawyer who questioned Jesus. Jews hated Samaritans and thought of them as less than human – kind of like how many religious people today think of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Surely, the lawyer must be thinking at this point, this sub-human would pass the man too if such well-respected men as the priest and the Levite passed by. But, Jesus had a rude awakening for the man as he told about how the Samaritan stopped to help the man, binding his wounds and taking him to an inn and took care of him.
“Which of these three,” Jesus asked the lawyer, “do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say “Samaritan.” He could only describe the man as “the one who showed him mercy.”
To which Jesus said to him – and to us today – “go and do likewise.”
Go and do likewise – show mercy to anyone and everyone you meet without regard to race, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Do you think that’s what the lawyer did? Do you think he went away vowing to be nicer to Samaritans? I doubt it. He was probably more determined to hate and persecute them and feel justified doing it. After all, this freak Jesus had practically deified them. How dare he slander such upstanding religious men in his story! How dare he portray God’s will as some touch-feely “brotherhood of man.” People don’t want a God like that. Instead they want a God that takes names, kicks ass and does the proper condemning and smiting.
But, this is the revolutionary message – God demands mercy, not sacrifice. It is our human condition to demand sacrifice and forget mercy, but if we are to conform our lives to God’s will we must revolt against our violent nature. We must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is a radical message that is impossible to follow – like children digging a hole at high tide – our attempts to do this will always be washed away. But it is the attempt that is important, not so much the success. We are commanded to love no matter what – even if our love is refused or destroyed.
But our resistance is great. We don’t want to show mercy to some people. Thousands of years after Jesus told this story, the state of Michigan is working on passing a law that allows doctors and nurses to refuse to treat people on moral, ethical or religious grounds. They call it “The Conscientious Objector Policy Act” but I think it should be called the “Levite Law” in contrast to the “Good Samaritan” law! After all this time we’re still asking with the lawyer, “but who is my neighbor” in the hope that there will be at least one person we don’t have to love. This new Levite law would let health care workers pick and choose their neighbors, passing by on the other side of the road if they felt like it. But if we truly follow Jesus we don’t have that luxury, no matter what the law might say.
Let us not confuse loving our neighbor with liking our neighbor. We are not commanded to like anyone. We do not have to like men like Osama, but we must love them. We must seek to understand them – to discover what makes their hatred so deep and abiding. We must understand that what we have in common with Osama is the very real human condition of suffering. Osama’s suffering is just like ours. Out of his suffering he has come to believe that killing others is the solution – that through acts of terror his suffering will somehow be alleviated. He is misguided – he believes that violence leads to peace – just as our government believes the same thing. But as Martin Luther King Jr. understood, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. [. . .] The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate – must be broken.”
As King told his followers, those who perpetuate hate are not evil people, but misguided people, blinded by their own fear. Many of them are good, decent, spiritual people who cannot see past their own prejudices. They simply do not understand – and it is our task to educate them – to show them the grace they refuse to show others. In the words of Jesus, we must love our enemies, do good to them, show them mercy and grace, even as they do evil to us and show us no mercy and no grace. The love we must have is not warm and fuzzy love, but agape love – that “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill” for all people.
When we look around our world, at all the wars and murders and hungry, desperate people, we may believe that this kind of agape love is impossible and will never, ever happen, but it has! There are many examples of how people have overcome their violent tendencies and have found it within their heart to show mercy instead of demanding sacrifice – to love their neighbor as they love themselves.
Agape in action
In South Africa, black people lived under the repression of apartheid for decades. The 1948 laws institutionalized racial segregation – blacks were forbidden to marry whites and there were “white only” jobs. Black people were cordoned off into “homelands” and had to have passports to travel around South Africa – they were aliens in their own land. The punishment for protesting the law or lobbying for its repeal was harsh, including whippings and imprisonment. Many people were brutalized and killed – and it would be logical that after apartheid was struck down that they would seek revenge on those who caused them so much pain.
Instead, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 to promote reconciliation and national unity while confronting apartheid-era human rights violations, as the act that created the commission says, “on the basis that there is a need for understanding, but not for vengeance.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells one story that illustrates Jesus’ revolutionary point about who is our neighbor:
“In Bisho, some former Ciskei Defense Force officers testified about the Bisho massacre. One of them alienated the people with his insensitive tirade. Then another confessed his part and asked for forgiveness. In the audience were people who had been wounded in that incident, people who had lost loved ones; but when that white Army officer asked for forgiveness, they did not rush to strangle or assault him. Unbelievably, they applauded. ”
This is an example of agape love in action. This is an example of how to love our neighbor, even if our neighbor has killed someone we love. It sounds impossible, but people are finding ways to do it every single day.
Witness the agape love of neighbor portrayed by John Titus who lost his daughter Alicia on Sept. 11, 2001. She was on United Flight 175 that hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He writes:
“I will not allow the death of Alicia and the 3,000 other victims of September 11th, nor the innocent victims of Afghanistan or Iraq die in vain! I will not settle for a world in which distrust and fear create a widening chasm between my brothers and sisters, who happen to look, believe and think differently than me. I am my brother’s keeper! And, “my brother” includes all of mankind: Iraqis, Afghanis, Syrians, North Koreans, Iranians as well as Americans. We are all interconnected through God. We are all part of the “Great Mystery” as our Lakota brothers call God. Until we accept that reality, we will always find reasons to justify any act of outrage including murder. Let us break down the barriers that serve to divide us, put forth efforts to understand and accept those people different from us, and join together in a state of peace that sees no need for weapons of mass destruction but a need for tools of mass construction.”
Titus is not alone. There are many other people who lost family members on that terrible day who understand that Osama is their neighbor, even if his actions caused them to lose a loved one. They understand that more people will lose loved ones unless we can realize that we are all “interconnected through God” – we are all brothers and sisters – neighbors.
These are just a of couple examples of the many people who are doing the impossible, recognizing the neighbor even in those who have done them personal harm. They have embraced Jesus’ command to “go and do likewise.” They understand that they cannot be like the priest or the Levite, as respectable as they may be. They must be like the hated Samaritan, misunderstood by the rest of the world. How can they forgive those who have done them such harm? How can they even think of these kinds of people as neighbors?
They do the impossible. They don’t ask the injured man about his religious beliefs or his sexual orientation or his nationality – they simply go about the business of being a neighbor – of showing mercy, even though they may never see a reward – even though their acts of kindness may seem like sand castles built at high tide and destroyed the moment they are created. Their actions may seem futile, but they do them with joy, with love, with anticipation that one day others may follow their lead and do the impossible – and understand that everyone, even men like Osama bin Laden, are our neighbor.
Go, and do likewise.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.