A Brief History of
institutions, despite whatever good
intentions they claim, seem inevitably to find ways to increase
suffering in the world. Government has its bureaucracy, law its
lawyers, and Microsoft its Windows®. But Christianity trumps them all,
by demanding adherence to a concept that has caused more suffering than
all other strategies combined: Loving our neighbors.
Love is supposed to be a good thing,
of course. However, in those rare instances of right loving, it is
often painful for the one doing the loving. Martin Luther King Jr., for
example, loved his country into providing some measure of justice for
African-Americans. He was rewarded with an early exit from his struggle
to reflect God’s kingdom on earth.
And in the more usual case of loving
done badly, the suffering lands squarely on those being loved. European
Christians loved their way across North America, attempting to convert
the savages to everlasting life. They were not terribly successful at
conversion, but they did manage to leave an efficient wake of death and
devastation behind them. Love is indeed a battlefield, as the prophet
Benatar once proclaimed.
In my own life, I’ve encountered many
a Christian attempting to love me into seeing God their way. All too
often, it ends in shouting, finger-wagging, or tears. And yet, my own
love of neighbor demands that I offer in return some vital and sincere
reflection of God’s eternal wisdom. Not infrequently, this is met with
the same stubborn resistance. Where did we go wrong?
love started out well
enough. Jesus urged us to love our neighbors as second only to loving
God in our right-living priorities. He even helpfully pointed out who
our neighbors are (Samaritans) and what we should do to love them
(provide for them when they are mugged). He also recklessly included
enemies as neighbors, and advocated social engineering in the form of
feeding those who are hungry and clothing those who are naked.
Despite this promising start, loving
our neighbors took a turn for the worse when Christians acquired power.
The Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the official state
religion, so instead of waiting around for Samaritans to get mugged,
Christians started patrolling the hills. This worked well for awhile,
and not just for the Samaritans.
Eventually Christians grew restless
with mere safety, and started mugging the Levites and priests because
they weren’t Christian. Loving neighbors became a very pro-active
thing, and by the time there were no more Samaritans or Levites to
love, Christians turned their attention to the wider world to see who
else was worthy of their affection.
Around the same time, St. Augustine
invoked love of neighbor to inaugurate the Just War tradition. He made
the reasonable claim that even though a Christian must turn the other
cheek when struck, he is allowed to protect a neighbor when a second
neighbor strikes the first one. Unfortunately, this has been
interpreted rather broadly over the centuries. In practice it has now
degenerated to the right of any Christian nation to invade any other
nation if it contains a single person who has ever been slapped.
Thomas Aquinas gallantly tried to
bring this under control by adding a bunch of restrictions, riders, and
disclaimers to just war theory. However, benevolent kings and
politicians are notoriously impatient with limits on their love. Thus,
by my counting, just war has never prevented a war, but it has
justified plenty of despicable ones. All in the name of love, to
misquote the prophet Bono.
If loving our neighbors is so
terrible, then why do we insist on doing it? The problem to any
alternative, for those of us who claim to be Christian, is that love of
neighbor is not an optional choice on the Christian menu of ethics.
Love is not some tiny sprig of parsley next to the big, juicy pork chop
of salvation. It isn’t even the tasty applesauce. It is the heart of
the gospel, which makes it the very meat on the bone. It may be hard to
swallow when badly prepared, but eat it we must, if we are to be
faithful. Vegetarians may disagree, but perhaps we should not discount
the possibility that vegetarians are damned.
aside, the solution isn’t
to stop loving our neighbors, but to do it better than we normally do.
And it turns out that the problem with loving our neighbors is not the
part where we care for our neighbors’ physical, emotional, and
spiritual needs. Providing aid and comfort to those in need and
advocating justice for the oppressed are exactly what Jesus had in mind
when he said to love each other.
No, the culprit is not love itself,
but the seemingly infinite human capacity for self-delusion when
deciding what is good for someone else. What we believe to be good for
someone else usually coincides most conveniently with what is good for
us, or our country, or our culture. How else to explain forced
conversion by domination? Slavery? Trickle down economics?
It is time to take a hard-line
approach to love. Our credibility is so damaged that we should not
allow ourselves to invoke love as a motivation for helping others
unless we physically, emotionally, or spiritually lose something in the
process. We must prove our love, as the prophet Madonna once demanded
(except maybe not quite in the way she suggests).
One good measure of the purity of our
intentions would be to judge whether our actions result in more power
for the people we love, or more power for ourselves. Even though we
might do good deeds that are worthwhile, and even succeed in making
others happy, we can’t call it love unless it is painful and costly to
ourselves. We may not need to literally hang on a cross for our love,
but we do need to challenge the powers of the world for the benefit of
Sure, I am overstating it, but
perhaps some loving radicalism is required at this point in history.
Although modern Christians have grown more sophisticated in hiding our
self-serving love, we nonetheless suffer from the same instincts. We
love immigrants by letting them mow our lawns, cook our food, take care
of our children. We love homosexuals by urging them to deny their
identities to affirm our worldview. We love unborn babies enough to
scold their mothers but not enough to provide for them after they
emerge from the womb to the starkness of their world.
And of course there is still plenty
of old-fashioned love to go around. We invade other countries to free
them of tyranny while laying waste to their people, land, and
culture—and conveniently ensuring ourselves access to the world’s oil
but not least, what of writers like this one, who rebuke others
regarding their shortcomings in their attempts to love? What of those
who lecture one-sidedly on their tradition’s sometimes sad history of
love of suffering? Those who bind heavy burdens onto the backs of
others while lifting only their fingers to type behind the warm comfort
and glow of their computer monitors? Woe unto them, I say, for they
have already received their reward, often in the form of a small check,
for which they are indeed grateful.
In fact, writers who demand an
uncompromising stance on love may cause us to abandon any attempt at
it. We may fear that we will get it wrong and shame ourselves. And yet,
fear not. There is no doubt we will continue to get it wrong.
Despite our most sincere
efforts, our spiritual descendants will shake their heads in dismay at
how we could be so blind to the plight of others, just as we shake our
heads at the past follies of some of our spiritual ancestors. We just
have to hope that God’s grace is indeed infinite. We must love boldly
and therefore sin boldly, and have faith that God will forgive us our
sins, since history is not likely to.
Schreiber is a freelance writer from Champaign, Illinois. He enjoys
rebuking himself and others, but mostly others, on his blog at