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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Neighbor

By Jeff Fulmer
Also Posted at Hometown Prophet and 

“For the entire law is summed up in one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5: 14)

That quote from Paul has an even higher degree of difficulty than when Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets with, “…do to others what you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7: 12). Because we’re all hard-wired to put ‘number one’ first, those passages have confounded Christians for two thousand years and counting.

Back in Sunday school, I learned that “my neighbor” actually meant everyone we share this planet with, including the starving child or the refugee from a third world county. While I don’t come anywhere close to loving them as much as I do myself, on a good day, I can muster a respectable amount of empathy toward these struggling strangers half-way around the world. Truth be told, it is my actual “neighbors” that I have a problem with.

I live in one of the most conservative counties in a blood red state, so I am surrounded by raw-meat Republicans. They make up most of my Bible Study class, some are my clients, and they are my literal neighbors, including the guy down the street who flew his flag upside down the day after Barrack Obama was elected President. (Apparently an upside down flag is a distress signal). They argue and shout; they are often wrong, but never in doubt.

So, how can I be expected to love someone I disagree with so strongly? Love your neighbor as yourself looks good on paper, but doesn’t work in real life. And yet, as the arguments get louder and dissension grows wider, the greatest commandment seems more important than ever. In fact, our society is experiencing the very next verse in Galatians (15), “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” 

The protests over public employees’ right to organize and the debate over the debt limit are just two recent examples of the division taking place on a state and national level. The fault line that is splitting our country is deep and runs underneath the church, too. Granted, there are two very different theologies on either side of the political divide. Never-the-less, we are all supposed to share the same Savior who commanded us to love our neighbors and do unto others…

From my perspective, I feel like I am obeying those commands by supporting legislation that benefits the majority of society, without forgetting about the “the least of these.” While government can be intrusive and wasteful, it is also capable of doing so much more than all the well-intentioned individuals and churches could ever hope to do. Despite my desire to promote altruistic policies, I also know I can’t be effective if I am not honoring the greatest commandment.

So how can I learn to love my neighbor? The following are a few suggestions and guidelines I try to keep in mind:

1. Accept that I do not love my neighbors the way I should, especially the ones that I disagree with politically. I also need to recognize the need to change my attitude toward others, including that guy down the street who still has the “McCain/Palin” sign in his yard.

2. Stop worrying about winning an argument, or for the candidates I support to win an election, at any cost. This can only lead to me saying things I wish I could take back and bad decisions that come back to haunt me. If I can take my own agenda out of the equation, it’s easier to trust God with the outcome.

3. There are certain radio and TV shows that fill me with a righteous indignation that is neither holy nor productive. While these ‘air attacks’ usually come from the opposing camp, they can also be ‘friendly fire’ that is designed to whip me up and vilify the opponents. When in doubt, tune it out.

4. Accept that God loves every one of us, Republicans, Democrats, Tea-Partiers and Socialists. Only God knows the series of events that led (or misled) a person to come to certain conclusions. Their beliefs don’t necessarily make them a bad person. Sometimes, however, you do encounter such hostility and malevolence, the best response is to simply turn away and not engage.

5. Pray for divine help because, ultimately, that’s the only way I can learn to fully love my neighbors. Jesus tells us to “…love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 44) As well as releasing supernatural aid, the exercise of praying can also release anger that wells up when we’re threatened or offended.

*(This list is obviously not a complete set of answers, and I would welcome and benefit from your comments below).

Disagreements among Christians are as old as the church itself. In Galatians 2: 11, Paul tells us “When Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” Not only is it okay to disagree, we are called to correct without condemning and admonish without judging. This means getting the log out of our own eyes first. It also means being willing to call out those in our party or church who cross the line.

Christians have the opportunity to break the vicious cycle of hate that is so pervasive in our society. Based on God’s greatest commandment, we are actually obligated to bring the debate down to a more caring conversation. As always, Christ himself provides the ultimate example by boldly standing up to the Pharisees and to the Roman ruler, forgiving them even as they crucify him. If He can do that, I can be a little kinder to my political opponents, even that guy down the street.

Jeff Fulmer is the author of the book "Hometown Prophet."

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