Love, only love
Reflection by The Reverend Ted Witham
Over the last couple of decades I have lost my confidence in taking part in a robust debate. I fear that my opponent and I will not be able to learn from one another, let alone find a solution that benefits both of us.
I have different conversations about live sheep exports with my farming family and with my animal activist acquaintances. Apart from a vague desire not to be cruel to animals, I find it frustratingly difficult to get one ‘side’ to hear the viewpoint of another.
And to have a conversation on climate change with people who disagree with you is bound to end in shouting or tears; yet this conversation, perhaps more than any other, is where we need to listen to opposing views, to learn from them, and to find win-win remedies.
We are learning how Facebook and other social media divide us even further. They manipulate us into an echo chamber where we hear only our views reverberate around us. They disgust us with outbursts of hateful trolling which cement our dislike of the trolls.
Jesus has a radical prescription for a society divided like ours: ‘Love God with all your strength… and love your neighbour as yourself.’ The two parts of the Great Commandment come from the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and Leviticus19:18) and were familiar to Jesus’ hearers.
The Jewish teachers defined love not as a feeling, but as an active commitment to better the lives of others. On that, they and Jesus agreed.
But Jesus made two profound changes to the Summary of the Law: firstly, he linked loving God with loving neighbour so that they always come together. Love God and you inevitably love your neighbour. Loving your neighbour is a way of loving God.
Secondly, he extended the idea of ‘neighbour’ beyond the circle of family and everyday friends. For Jesus, a neighbour is anyone you meet, anyone near you. It even includes your enemy!
For many Jews, that was a challenge too far. How could you love the Roman occupiers? It’s an affront for us too: how can we love the terrorist who beheads a teacher? How can we love the drunk driver who kills our daughter?
Love God. Love your neighbour. In this volatile environment, the Great Commandment asks new action from me. Loving the neighbour who disagrees with me means taking the effort to maintain a strong connection with her or him, building a friendship on things other than our disagreement.
Loving my neighbour means being careful about joining ‘tribes’. I resist the pressure to join a political party, not because I want to reduce its influence, but because my joining will be perceived as taking sides and not being open to new truth.
Loving my neighbour means I take great precautions around Facebook. It is seriously addictive; and it is designed to divide people from each other. It may be that I should close my account.
Loving God means seeing the humanity in people who disagree with me. It means being loved by God so that I may have the grace to love radically as Jesus did.