One of my favorite movies is the film A Few Good Men. I like it because it is an awesome courtroom drama in which a hot-shot JAG lawyer (played by Tom Cruise) has to defend the actions of two marines who are on trial for murder. Over the course of the film he learns what it means to respect and defend his clients, even though he disagrees with their actions.
In one scene he offers them a plea bargain in order to avoid the trial. However, the two men do not want to take it because they felt that they were doing right in following orders and seeking to discipline their fellow Marine for breaking the chain of command. They said that he violated their code. When Cruise’s character asks them what their code is, one of the Marines responds:
“Unit, Corps, God, Country.”
The reason I mention this is because my last post addressed the question of Christian priorities when it comes to political engagement. In the course of making my argument I wrote the following:
“We engage politics and political issues is with a different set of priorities; ones that focus on service to our neighbors and the administration of just laws rather than advancing the agenda of a particular interest group or political party.”
However, the one issue that I realize I needed to elaborate on some more was this question of “Who is my neighbor?” If we are to serve our neighbors rather than an interest group, it begs the question, “How do we evaluate who our neighbors are and what it looks like to serve them?” That’s what this post aims to address.
THE PROBLEM WITH “UNIT, CORPS, GOD, COUNTRY”
The truth is that very few Christians would disagree with the call to love our neighbors. In fact, when summarizing all of the Old Testament Torah and the Prophets, Jesus said:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The call to love our neighbors is one of the most familiar parts of Jesus’ teaching. Sadly a problem arises when it comes time to define who our neighbor actually is. In many ways, I think we develop a Christianized version of the code, “Unit, Corps, God, Country”. We tend to think of our neighbors in the categories of “Family, Community, Country, God”. What I mean by this is that we tend to define who our neighbor is in terms of whether or not we are related to them, whether or not they are a part of our immediate community, and whether or not they are a part of our country.
For example, if I were to apply this code to my own life, it means I look out for my wife and kids, my extended family, and anyone who is a middle-class White person in America with moderate political views. We turn this call to love our neighbors into a justification for caring for our own interests and the interests of those who are like us and with whom we agree.
The code starts to break down when you begin to push the boundaries of who qualifies as a neighbor. After all, how do we tend to think about those who are different from us? Allow me to offer a couple of examples:
- What about Muslims? We label them “terrorists”.
- What about undocumented people? They’re “illegal aliens”.
- What about the homeless? We call them “lazy welfare abusers”.
- What about members of the LGBTQ community? We label them “fags”.
- What about the Chinese? They’re “communists who are trying to take over the world”.
- What about our enemies? They’re “dangerous and should be killed or imprisoned”.
If you were offended by that list GOOD. You should be. Because it’s an offensive list. And I would argue that it is offensive because we have taken people, human beings made in the image of God, and dehumanized them. Furthermore, we have made excuses for why we shouldn’t care for them and their needs, much less treat them in a “neighborly” fashion.
And what is sad is that, quite honestly, I have heard all of those things on the lips of people within the church. I’ve heard Christians say these kinds of things about people and it breaks my heart. And yet, these all betray that we are working with an inner hierarchy that preferences those who are like us over those who are different.
But the funny thing is that Jesus had something to say about people who operate with this code:
44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”
~Matthew 5:43-48 (emphasis mine)
Yup. You just heard that from the man. The code doesn’t match up with Jesus’ notion of who is our neighbor. So what does?
A DIFFERENT CODE
So how does Jesus answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer is found in Luke 10:25-37 where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a Samaritan man cares for a Jewish man who has been robbed and beaten. When he asks the Jewish expert in the Law who was a neighbor to the man who was beaten, he answers, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Again, this is a pretty familiar story for Christians, but I honestly don’t think we wrestle enough with the implications of what is being said here. We have to remember that the Samaritans and the Jews in Jesus’ day were not on the best of terms. The Jewish people looked at the Samaritans as religious and ethnic outsiders. They were heretics and half breeds. Animosity between the two groups often became violent and there are several recorded incidents of violent conflict between the groups in the 1st centuries BC and AD. For Jesus’ hearers a Samaritan is not the likely hero of this story. If anything, they would have expected a Samaritan to be the culprit.
And yet here is Jesus holding up a Samaritan as the hero of the story. It is the Samaritan who is the neighbor. It is the religious and ethnic outsider, the enemy and the outcast, who is the neighbor. This totally upends the code of “Unit, Corps, God, Country” because it says that our neighbor is actually the one who is least like us. It is the person with whom there is the greatest distance, the greatest tension, that we are to consider our neighbor.
What this tells us is that Jesus’ understanding of who our neighbor is flies directly in the face of what we would prefer and, as Christians, we have to not only wrestle with it, but seek to apply it to our own lives.
SERVING OUR NEIGHBOR
So how do we do that? What does it look like to serve our neighbor, especially the neighbor who is so different from us? My answer is going to sound like a cop-out, but honestly it starts by getting to know them. That is the only way you are going to build trust, learn their needs, and discover where they are at in their walk with God. There is no formula for this. Service to neighbor has to begin with relationships.
And this is what is so uncomfortable for us. If I’m honest, it is uncomfortable for me to be in a room full of people who are different from me. It is hard to talk with someone with whom I disagree politically. And, honestly, it is hard for me to love and pray for those who want to kill me.
And yet…that is what Jesus calls us to do. He calls us to love, pray for, and serve our neighbors as he defines them. We have to wrestle with that and ask God for the strength to change our hearts as we reach out others.
So what would it look like for those Christians who spoke poorly about the “other” to re-evaluate their views through the lens of this parable? What would it look like for you and for me to do so? I think this would radically redefine what political issues we take an interest in, the books we read, the places we live, and the people we hang out with. That is what this parable calls us to. That is what it looks like to love our neighbors and it is a far better code than “Unit, Corps, God, Country.”