post-Christendom (8) neighbour love no optional extra

These posts on post-Christendom are based on a recently published paper of mine,  ‘Sex, Truth and Tolerance: some theological reflections on the Irish Civil Partnership Bill 2010 and challenges facing Christians in a post-Christendom culture’

I’m proposing 6 themes of Christian realism related to doing public theology in contemporary culture: This is the second.

2. Realism about the implications of Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’

Jesus’ commanded his followers to ‘do to others as you would have them do to you’ and to love those that do not love in return (Luke 6:31-32). Yet, there is often little or no discussion of what it means in practice to love the ‘Other’ in many Christian responses to life within a plural democracy despite its absolutely central place in biblical ethics (Lev.19:18; Matt.19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31-33; Luke 10:27; Rom.13:9; Gal. 5:14; Jas 2:8).

What constitutes ‘neighbour love’ towards others who hold opposing political and ethical views to your own? Why do you think many Christian responses to what ‘others’ think seem to ignore engaging with Jesus’ command to love their neighbour?

This is an important and complex question, but one that needs to be thought through and seriously engaged with by those who are following Jesus. Neighbour love isn’t an optional extra of marginal importance to ‘defending the truth’ or arguing for your own rights.

The whole point of Jesus’ parable in Luke 10:25-37 is that neighbour love is costly, radical and shocking since it is generously offers grace across deep gulfs of hatred, suspicion and alienation. ‘Neighbour love’ does not pretend profound differences do not exist but rather, in the face of such difference, says ‘I love you as I would wish to be loved’ or ‘The rights we desire for ourselves, we are glad to affirm for others.’

Christian love is not self-centred, fearful or defensive. Rather, since love is relational, it should also involve a sacrificial commitment to meet, talk with and listen to the ‘Other’.

The EAI statement on the CPB attempted to apply Jesus’ command in this particular case, and argued that the most loving thing to do was to support the Bill.

 … as followers of a just and compassionate God we can recognise the justice and fairness of providing some legal protection for the reality of both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting relationships … the Gospel requires of us that we show grace to those who fundamentally disagree with our convictions and who do not shape their lives according to what we believe is good for them. Jesus requires of his followers that they love and do good to those who oppose them or who hold to different ethical standards than they do.

Others strongly disagreed with this interpretation (to put it mildly). But my point here is to suggest that, whatever the conclusion, any Christian public theology must grapple seriously with the implications of ‘neighbour love’. Since love is not equivalent to mere toleration or unthinking acceptance, how it is expressed in different contexts will require significant wisdom and discernment.

Comments, as ever, welcome.


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