The greatest commandment in the Bible is to love God with all of your heart, soul and mind. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). This is one of the most quoted passages in the bible as Christians all over the world memorize and seek to live by this. At the surface, this passage seems very simple because it merely requires us to love God and love our neighbors. However, we too often take this passage passively rather than actively and as a result, we sanitize it. When it becomes sanitized, it is used as a protection from engaging in difficult issues and holding people accountable for injustices and prejudices. The command is a subtle yet severe way to uphold and defend oppressive systems that Christians, especially in America, have long contributed to and benefited from.
One example of how Christians take the passage passively is with racism and racial reconciliation. Many Christians (both black and white) dismiss conversations about racism in the church as being “political” and suggest that if we just “loved our neighbors” everything would be ok. This is a grossly false and inaccurate way of interpreting Jesus’ second greatest commandment. Loving your neighbor is not a protection or “exit” from engaging and confronting racism but rather a way to fight and challenge it. The “love your neighbor” response to avoid discussing race in the church is another way to promote “Christian colorblindness”, which is a topic I discussed in my blog The Colorblind Christian. It is also a way to defend the oppression of Christians who are victims of racism in America.
In Martin Luther King’s Letter to a Birmingham Jail and Where do we go from here? he challenged and rebuked the hypocrisy and silence of white Christian clergy who remained silent in the midst of the oppression of their black people. He told them that they weren’t living up to the ideals of their faith. He also argued that you cannot truly love someone if you are unwilling to take a stand against the injustices he/she faces and refuse to value their full humanity.
The Christian community has to stop using a serious and important scripture incorrectly to avoid challenging what author Jim Wallis refers to as “America’s original sin” of racism in their ranks. By doing so, you are rejecting the pain and suffering of black and brown brothers and sisters who live and experience racism on a daily basis. Furthermore, you are completely sanitizing the message of Christ and walking in direct contradiction of his message. Below are practical examples to “love your neighbor” from a racial lens
- Listen: You cannot truly love someone until you listen to their pain. This seems to be applied to so many other instances. Christians seem to draw closer to each other when they become vulnerable in talking about the pains of depression, sexual addiction, and other deep problems. Unfortunately, with racism, we fail miserably at applying the art of listening. If you are unwilling to listen to people share their experiences and real fears of racism, you cannot and will not love them as your neighbor. You can’t expect someone to conform to your ideals or political views about racism for you to love them. This is especially true when they have actually experienced it.
- Expect people to know their lives better than you: I’ve mentioned this before in previous blogs and cannot stress this enough. If someone says they have experienced racism, believe them.
- Hold others in your community accountable for how they treat certain groups of people: In Galatians 2, when the apostle Peter was clearly being hypocritical in his actions towards Gentiles to appease the Jews, the apostle Paul “called him out” and “opposed him to his face.” Paul did this because Peter was not living up to the ideals of his faith and he needed Peter to know that. Similarly, if you know that a fellow Christian is treating an “outsider” differently because of their background, you should not ignore or avoid it, you must hold them accountable and call them out. Loving your neighbor does no good if you are unwilling to condemn the unloving and unjust actions of others.
- Hold people in power accountable: Christians are not afraid to speak out against the social issues of the day. They just pick and choose which issues to speak out against. In rapper Lecrae’s song Gangland, he raps “When American churches scuff they Toms on our brother’s dead bodies As they march to stop gay marriage We had issues with Planned Parenthood too We just cared about black lives outside the womb just as much as in.” Lecrae is exposing his hypocrisy of American Christians who fail at standing up for black lives.
- Think about the racial makeup of your church leadership and participation: If your church is multiracial and every leader and everyone participating in the “order or worship” is white, this is a problem. You can’t just simply point to the many black faces at your church as proof that your church is welcoming and loving. If you do not ask or encourage non-white people to participate and lead in the church, you are reinforcing the oppressive power dynamics in our society, whether subtle or intentional. You are also failing to “value” or “love” them fully when you are uncomfortable having a different face of leadership or different style or perspective of worship service.
- Stop being the White Savior: You can read my two-part blog series on the White Savior Complex (Part I, Part II), but in short, you have to love and value your neighbor enough to learn from them and let them lead rather than believing that you have the “answers” to the problems simply because of your privilege and status. Furthermore, if you are teaching people that your culture is superior, you don’t love them; you are treating them as a token and using them to display your “love for humanity.”
When Jesus talked about loving your neighbor, he called us to live it actively in all areas of our lives and in all instances. He called us to really value people and not merely “treat them well” but to really stand up for them and care for them in a deep and active way. He meant challenging whatever societal forces keep us from loving and valuing others. Whether it is 1st century “norms” that kept Jews from talking to Samaritans, 20th century legal systems that kept and still prevent blacks from eating with or having the same rights as whites, or 21st century colorblind practices that redesign oppression to create an illusion that racism is no longer a problem while black men and women are being killed by police, we must challenge them all. Let’s go out there and actively love our neighbors and stop using that verse as an empty phrase.