Love your neighbor? It can take courage!

Love my neighbor? Are you kidding me? Given our history, I could get punched out by that guy!

Christ Jesus said the two great commandments were to love God and your neighbor as yourself (see Matthew 22:34–40). Loving God, the creator of all beauty and grace, seems relatively logical and not too difficult. But loving my neighbor? In my experience, sometimes that can take real courage.

Of course, we may argue, times were way different back in Jesus’ day. Surely, Jesus didn’t mean that today’s liberals must love conservatives, and vice versa? Did he mean that Christians today should love other Christians who, for example, share very different views about social issues? Should Shia Muslims love Sunni Muslims? Southerners embrace Northerners? What about whites and blacks?

Hatred and division often follow a familiar pattern: Stereotype. Demonize. Sow fear and lies about “them.”

The pattern actually hasn’t changed much since biblical times, nor have the justifications based on legitimate-sounding-but-flawed principles. The Pharisees and Sadducees were strict, law-abiding Jews. They were upholding centuries-old laws and ideals. They probably believed that they were protecting the faith, and the faithful, from the corrosive influence of unbelievers, the “immoral” and “ungodly” Gentiles, or worse: false prophets and sinners.

Yet Jesus and the Apostles taught that adherence to principles without love is valueless. He taught his followers: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

His parable in Luke of the good Samaritan is a familiar one to many Christians (see 10:30–37). Who was the hero in that parable? A Samaritan. Not a Jew such as Jesus and his followers, nor a priest. Historians tell us that Jews and Samaritans (a Hebrew sect) passionately hated one another. Again, that’s a common pattern seen today among religious followers, even sometimes of the same faith.

Imagine what courage it must have taken for the Samaritan to give help to a Jewish man who’d been assaulted by thieves. I once found myself having to confront my own judgments and fears when it came to dealing with a neighbor. 

This neighbor owned a large tract of land adjacent to our home. He’d partnered with a developer to clear a surrounding forest and build about a dozen new homes. We soon found ourselves on opposite sides in a very bitter and public dispute about that plan. Eventually, a compromise was reached.

But even months later, my antipathy toward that neighbor lingered. My concept of him wasn’t particularly kind as I clung to some of the remarks he and his lawyers had made at town meetings. As a student of the Bible and Christ Jesus’ teachings, I didn’t feel that I was living in accord with the demand to love my neighbor. And as a student of Christian Science, I certainly didn’t feel that I was recognizing this man’s spiritual identity as a reflection of God, divine Love.

I didn’t know how my neighbor felt, but my residual anger was undermining my peace. I prayed to get a clearer sense of my neighbor as a brother, as a fellow child of God. And I knew the healing wouldn’t be complete until I summoned the courage to address my neighbor face to face.

Yet, I worried: Maybe he’s still angry at me for my role in temporarily obstructing his housing development? What if I show up at his door and he throws a punch at me? Clearly, I hadn’t quite gotten clear that he really was my brother, not an enemy.

Neither he nor I could be a captive of anger or ill will.

I turned to the all-knowing and all-loving God for an answer. The Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught to his disciples, begins, “Our Father which art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). “Our Father.” Inherent in those first words is a statement of unity. Every time I prayed the Lord’s Prayer, I affirmed that divinely bestowed brotherhood with my “enemy.” In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Mary Baker Eddy makes this bold statement: “It should be thoroughly understood that all men have one Mind, one God and Father, one Life, Truth, and Love. Mankind will become perfect in proportion as this fact becomes apparent, war will cease and the true brotherhood of man will be established” (p. 467).

With one Father, one God, my neighbor and I were created as brothers. That’s how divine Love, God, sees us, I reasoned. And a realization of this fact harmonizes and makes needed adjustments in relationships and attitudes. 

If God, our Father, is Spirit and Love, then there’s no place for animosity, fear, or resentment in His offspring. That also means that hatred and fear are not real and true powers that can challenge the supremacy of divine Love. In that pure Love, “we live, and move, and have our being,” to quote Paul in the book of Acts (17:28).

I must see my neighbor as family, as another loved child, or spiritual idea, of the one loving God. Neither he nor I could be a captive of anger or ill will. That just wasn’t our true nature.

The complete fulfillment of my prayers came at a soccer match. I was sitting in the stands, watching my daughter compete, when I recognized my neighbor and his wife in the stands, too. My daughter’s team was competing against his daughter’s team.

Love my neighbor? OK, here’s my opportunity, I thought. I swallowed my fear, affirming again what I knew of our true relationship. Then I walked over, held out my hand, and said, “Hey, neighbor, how’s it going?” He looked up, shook my hand, and smiled. I sat down next to him, and we talked about the soccer game for a few minutes, as two proud fathers.

We didn’t become best friends, but we were cordial and, well, neighborly after that. My fears about possibly angry interactions were gone. 

Bridging a divide is often difficult. Fear would paralyze us or keep us in a cycle of hate. But in my case, divine Love challenged me to get out of my comfort zone. The payoff in peace of mind was worth it.

Pray as if you mean it
September 4, 2017

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