The Complexity of Loving Your Neighbor

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Can we admit something? The world is more complicated than ever before. Globalization, the information/technology revolution, and the success of Justin Beiber have forced us to recognize that the world isn’t as simple as it seems (one of these isn’t like the other, but still! It baffles the mind).

For Christians, the increasing complexity of life is bringing new challenges to how we live and interact in the world. Same-sex marriage is becoming more common (currently, 19 states have legalized same-sex marriage and 9 others have rulings overturning ban same-sex marriage and appeals in process). The Affordable Healthcare Act mandated that employers provide women access to contraceptives, but the very public case with Hobby Lobby and the resultant exception granted to employers who believe the use of certain contraceptives violate their religious beliefs revealed that to be a tricky situation. Going back a few months, we saw Arizona passing legislation, which was later vetoed by the governor, allowing business owners the right to deny services to people based on their religious beliefs. All of this reveals the simple truth: The moral and ethical framework of society is changing and Christians are rapidly trying to figure out how to respond in order to live out our beliefs in the world.

As Christians, we are called to be in the world. We are never called out of the world. It would be easier if we were, but we are never told that we get to leave the world. In fact, Jesus last prayer for us, his disciples, is that we would not be taken out of the world, but rather, we would be protected while in the world from the evil one (John 17:15).

But increasingly it is becoming more complicated being in the world. The intermingling of business, faith, and politics is making loving your neighbor and pursuing holiness a weary endeavor.

Lately, the conversation seems to surround religious liberty. What does religious liberty look like for individuals? For businesses? Can businesses have religious liberty? What about those who run said businesses? On the one hand, I do not believe that businesses or corporations have religious beliefs, but I recognize that the individuals who run those business may have religious beliefs. I believe, like they probably do, that Jesus is Lord of all of life and we cannot compartmentalize our beliefs. This means, that as a business owner, one should run their business according to their beliefs. Running your business according to your beliefs means that your beliefs will impact your employees. In all likelihood, using your religious liberty to exercise your religion in every sphere of your life will cause your religious practice to infringe on another person who believes differently than you. At the same time, recognizing another’s religious liberty and allowing them to practice their religious beliefs means their beliefs will likely infringe on you.

See why this gets complicated? I want to love my neighbor, but it seems that at times, loving my neighbor may impact my pursuit of holiness which is an expression of my love of God.

In all of this, it seems to me that the supplying of contraceptives, the legalization of same-sex marriage, or even marijuana use really isn’t the issue. The issue is how we as Christians live in a world and interact with those who do not share our beliefs. How do we respond to a changing culture where Judeo-Christian values are no longer the majority? Do we retreat, form safe enclaves and ask to be left alone? Or do we go out into the world, associate with those who are different than us and be uncomfortable?

Here’s what I believe. I do not believe that loving God with our whole being ever has to be in conflict with loving our neighbor. If, in our love of God, we fail to love and serve our neighbor, then maybe we are misunderstanding what it means to love God. 

In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite passed by the samaritan, neglecting to help him, to keep clean and remain holy because of their love for God. I think that’s what we often miss from that story. The priest and the Levite loved God. They kept all the purity laws. They desired to be holy because of their love for God. And yet, in their pursuit of holiness, they neglected to love their neighbor.

The unspoken fear is that when we touch the “unclean” we will become unclean. If I bake a cake for a same-sex wedding I am complicit, or unclean. But when we look at Jesus, we see one who consistently touched the unclean and yet was never made unclean. Just the opposite happened. Those whom he touched became clean. Now, that same Jesus lives in us. Why should be afraid of becoming unclean by who we touch?

My fear is that we run the risk of doing the same thing. In our effort to exercise our religious liberty and remain pure we isolate ourselves and walk by those along the road who need our help. We fail at being salt of the earth who preserve the covenant between us and God where God blesses us so that we might bless others.

Understandably, the appeal to one’s conscience is consistent in all these cases. Our consciences are often a great help in discerning right from wrong. We need to listen to our consciences and pay attention to what they say. At the same time, we must recognize that our consciences are not always right. Just like every other part of our being, our consciences have been affected by sin and need restoration. This means that sometimes following Jesus will cause us to go against our consciences. It might also mean that the consciences of different Christians will allow different things. Some can bake the cake, some can go to the wedding, and some can do neither. I wonder if there can be room for all those differences…

This far into the post, I’m not sure what I’m advocating except conversation. We are improvising here. Black and white isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be. Change isn’t coming, change is here. We are going to need to learn a new way of being in the world. Our ethics do not need to change. Our morality does not need to change. But our posture may need to change so that we can be in the world and associate with those who do not share our beliefs so that we can love those around us.

I know that some will say that I am being overly simplistic here. And I probably am. But I worry that we make loving God and loving our neighbor more complex than necessary by adding caveats and asterisks. This is detrimental to our witness. One person said it like this:

“When Christian businesses boycott gay weddings and pride celebrations, and when they lobby and sue for the right to do so, they may think they are sending the message “Just leave us alone.” But the message that mainstream Americans, especially young Americans, receive is very different. They hear: “What we, the faithful, really want is to discriminate. Against gays. Maybe against you or people you hold dear. Heck, against your dog.”

This is how we are being perceived. I’m not sure it will change, but we need to be aware of it. Perhaps, rather than starting from a place of arguing for our religious liberty and making sure that “we get ours,” we become servants of others as we recognize that we already have everything in Christ.

 

photo credit: Armando G Alonso.

 

  • Jim Herrington

    Thanks for this Nate. Two things about the larger cultural conversation that trouble me.

    The first is the self-focus – what I believe, what I need, what I want to do. Paul says we are to have the same attitude as Jesus. Jesus gave up his rights. That’s a hard sell in a democracy that thrives on individual rights. I wonder what would happen if growing numbers of Christ-followers were willing to give up their rights in order to be in deep, loving relationships with those who see the world differently.

    The second thing that troubles me is that our judgements about moral purity are about what we stay away from. You said it well in this blog. Jesus consistently engaged people who were “unclean.” I wonder what would happen if growing numbers of Christ-followers were willing to engage in deep, authentic, loving relationships with a person or a family who they consider “unclean.”

    I’m pretty sure those two changes would change the world, change the church, and change the individual. At least that has been my experience as my family and I have actively tried to live into both of the commitments I describe above.

    The overall conversation makes me really sad. Your corrective word is needed and appreciated.

    • http://www.natepyle.com/ Nate Pyle

      The giving up of individual right is such a big component of this conversation. Admittedly, I’m not as good at that as I want to be.

  • Jon Neubauer

    It pains me deeply that, because I happen to disagree with my Christian brothers and sisters one a single issue (that I am gay, and believe marriage is condoned by God), that I immediately become a “complication” as you say, and stop being a person. That suddenly, although most all other beliefs are the same as yours, I suddenly do not hold to “Judeo-Christian values”, and am not a Christian. And even more that the answer is simply that your “posture may need to change”. That people like myself, as hard as we try, will still just be one of those “complications” to be dealt with – nothing will actually change, only posture. It’s realizations like that that make it incredibly hard to even attempt to continue as a Christian in community with other Christians. Sometimes it feels like it’d be easier to give up than to perpetually be a “culture war”, instead of a person, to be a “complication”, instead of a neighbor, to be one of those “unclean” instead of a Christian brother. Sometimes quitting seems easier than that.

    • http://www.natepyle.com/ Nate Pyle

      Thank you for saying something, Jon. I’m really present to how my language may have sent the message that you may be seen as the “complication.” That is not the way that I see it at all and am sorry if that is how it came across.

      • Jim Herrington

        Jon’s response is exactly what I find to be the dominate conversation in the Christian community. It’s not, “How do we learn to love each other? It’s more like how do I position and posture myself so that I can keep from changing while working on an agenda to change others. Thank you Jon. So very authentic and courageous.

        Jon, I know Nate intimately and like so many of us he is learning. Your feedback helps him, I believe, get to the deeper intention of his heart. Rather than leaving or writing the Christian community off, I hope you will stay and keep being authentic. It’s the primary way that real learning takes place. We need your voice – even when it’s painful – for you and for me. I think I recognize the cost of that gift. Maybe I don’t. But I know I need to regularly be exposed to your voice. Thank you.

    • John Quast

      Jon,

      Perhaps this thought will help you; it has helped me immensely in understanding issues of human understandings of sin. You get stuck, understandably so, on this notion that you do not hold to Judeo-Christian values and are thus judged as “less than” or a “complication” by others. What you need to understand, and what Nate is ultimately driving at I think, is that we ALL violate Judeo-Christian values on a daily basis. We are all as unclean as the Samaritan on the side of the road. It isn’t our job to judge your homosexuality or my selfishness or Nate’s whatever. It isn’t helping Christians in the culture to act like we are better than you or our sin is lesser than yours – we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. And we are not called to judge anyway! We are called to love those who are very like us and those who are very different. So bless you. I love you. Godspeed to you.

      • Jon Neubauer

        to be clear, I’m not the one constantly stuck on myself or other people not holding to Judeo-Christian values, or being a culture war, or being Christianity’s “complication”. While I am always trying to read, and engage, and learn, and grow in my own faith, I’m quite comfortable with, and certain of what I believe.
        However, it’s the constant, incessant, wearying voices of those shouting that one cannot be gay and Christian, that the fact that gay people exist is inviting the very wrath of God, and is a “complication” for modern Christians that must be fought against – it is those voices, regardless of the posture they take (because let’s face it, posture is pretty easy to see through), that make it so easy to entertain the thought that it might just be easier to quit, than to have to constantly answer to those people.
        Now, I’ve read Nate’s blog for quite some time now, and I have immense respect for him. But words matter, and words, even inadvertent words, speak to the writers thoughts. And creating a class of people that is a “complication” for you, and needs tricked by changing “posture” so that a public opinion about you might change without actually changing anything, those are words I have a problem with. It feels cheap, and it feels like nobody will every get anywhere, since many Christians will focus on changing their public image, instead of engaging in real, personal conversation with their neighbors.

        • John Quast

          Jon, I hear you. I can read the pain of the “wearying voices” through your words, and I understand how that must be exhausting and deeply hurtful. You’re right, public “posturing” towards gay people (or anyone), for purposes of human perception, is generally transparent and cheap. I don’t think that’s what Nate is getting at here, though I don’t blame you for being skeptical.

          What I read him saying is that our actual posture towards the secular world needs to change. Literally, we need to get up from our position that the world sees us in (because too often we are in that position) of judging and instead get into the position Jesus took, which was one of servant love. The Gospel stories could not make this more clear – Jesus reached out with love and kindness to tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and cripples. People who the religious authorities of His day ostracized, either for their life choices (tax collectors), situations (prostitutes) or because of what they were born as (Samaritans and cripples). He saved His rebukes for the religious authorities. Therefore we need to stop acting as those judgmental Pharisees and instead extend Christ’s love to everyone, as He did.

        • http://www.natepyle.com/ Nate Pyle

          I really appreciate your thoughts and your willingness to speak out, Jon. I hear how the inadvertent use of the word “complicated” and connecting that to homosexuality affected you. It wasn’t my intent for that to be the focus of the piece, as my thinking was about the Hobby Lobby case, and I brought it in as another example of the complex nature of living in the world. But I hear how it impacted you and thank you for making me aware of it and being engaged. That means a lot to me.

  • Chad Schuitema

    When this becomes your actual, physical neighbor, it takes on so much more meaning. Like almost all rabbi’s of Jesus’ day, he was asked to rank the commandments and he ranked loving your neighbor higher than don’t become unclean by [insert your favorite sin here]. When I stand and have a conversation with someone, they aren’t the gay neighbor, they are just my neighbor. When I take the time to listen to someone’s story, or become a safe place for them to be vulnerable and authentic, then I am living more like Jesus than if I was completely sinless. Anyone who is the “other” to us should be a sign for us to love one another. Do we really believe that God is going to give us demerits or take away salvation for loving people – no matter who they are or what they do? The good news, for me, is I’ve seen 70-year-old ultra-conservative-foxnews-watching-men befriend a gay couple (and become very good friends with them). But interestingly, it was because this non-Christian gay couple was a loving neighbor to the old guy.

  • http://www.climbingatree.com/ Paul Heggie

    Great start to an important conversation. I find myself thinking this a lot when I see certain Christians “taking a stand”: Do you know what message you’re *actually* communicating? And often, it’s not the one they think they are, especially to those who aren’t Christians.

  • John Quast

    Nate,

    You’ve managed here to untangle the threads in my heart that have been stuck for a long time. I love my gay friends deeply and support their desire for equal treatment under the law. I know in my heart that Christ wants me to love them. Yet I somehow felt like I was being unfaithful to “movement” Christians who oppose this “destruction of our culture.”

    My place is not to shape the culture (at least intentionally), to, in Bill Buckley’s famous phrase, “stand athwart history yelling: stop!” My call is to love my neighbor as myself and try to let people see Jesus love through me. Not worry about the politics of the issue or what people think about gay marriage one way or the other.

  • http://livingingraceland.me Debby Hudson

    Well said, Nate. Interesting conversation. If we put that love into action, like the Samaritan, that will speak louder than any of our words that fall short.

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