The Love of Our Neighbor

I often find myself struggling to understand what love is, and how I can love so that I might live fully what Christ told us was the greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor like ourselves. How do we show love to one another? St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, 13, is famous for listing what love is not and what love is, kind and patient and slow to anger…, but he does not tell me who to love, or why love is so important. And since this Scripture often gets read at weddings it has become closely associated with Eros.

We do not hesitate to say God is Love, although, I’m not so sure what this equation is supposed to mean on my end, and as for God, it is quite possible that simply stating God is Love permits me to fill in what love is for Him, which might make it so that I can let myself off the hook, and make love mean one thing when it suits me and then another when it suits me. I believe Thomas Merton said, God is Love is like saying God is Wheaties. Of course, there is the formal definition of love as Eros and Philia and Agape…, which derive from the ancient Greeks, and is useful when thinking about the kinds of love possible, and allowing for love that is not only based on physical attraction. All good and well, but something is still missing about love. Why is it written into the Scriptures as transformative? What does God want us to Love?

In Simone Weil’s, Waiting for God, she writes about love in a lengthy and beautiful essay entitled, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God.” In this essay she makes it clear that before we can receive the love of God fully; before we can love God with all our heart, we are in preparation for it. It is here on earth indirectly or implicitly through three — and she adds a fourth at the very end — ways of interacting with the world that we come to love, or practice, one could say, love. Implicit forms of love, according to Weil are found in religious ceremonies, beauty of the world, love of neighbor, and her fourth category, friendship. Interestingly, she begins to expound on each of these categories in a different order in which they are listed by her. She begins with love of neighbor and ends with friendship, which make love bracketed in human interactions with one another, something I like very much and believe to be intentional.

I have gone back to this essay of Weil many times because it illuminates questions a Christian takes for granted as knowing, and even doing at times, but really many of us, especially me, do not even come close to understanding and less likely to doing.
So during these days of discord and strife within our country, and loss of life that has become dehumanized and neatly turned into a statistical graph — something, I’m sure, Hannah Arendt would call the banality of evil — I turn to another female whose sensitivity and intelligence wakes me from my complacency.

I had planned to write on all three — and a fourth — forms of implicit love, but I found I needed to think about each separately. The following will only think about

Love of Neighbor.

When I taught faith formation I always had a hard time getting the kids to understand that the word neighbor did not necessarily mean one’s next door neighbor. Once they began to understand neighbor as not so confining, we immediately began to go to the opposite and equally dangerous extreme, the world. We loved the world and everything in it, which included the people from Iran and all the people on the continent of Africa, as well as people in Kansas. We were all about love. The only problem was that our love had turned into a love that had no action. For what action could we take at such an unimaginable distance without deliberating about it until we were weary and had forgotten our good intentions to love? God is commanding something different, according to Simone Weil. Of course, she is certainly not saying we should not love the world, but, love, for Simone Weil, as she reads it in Scripture, confers an obligation on us to do something more than witness, although it can be witnessed; love is an action.

What makes me so interested in Simone Weil is how she awakens me to Scripture readings I have read or heard in church many times. For Weil, an act done out of love is not merely a charitable act, but rather a just act.

“Christ does not call his benefactors loving or charitable. He calls them just. The Gospel makes no distinction between the love of our neighbor and justice (139).”

Justice, according to Weil, when done for the right reasons — out of love — is a supernatural virtue that is on the same level as a sacrament. We, as followers of Christ, have a responsibility to be just with everyone; not only those who have more power and money than us or family and friends.

“To treat our neighbor who is in affliction with love is something like baptizing him” (146).

Equality is a supernatural virtue because it is quite natural for man to behave badly towards his fellow man. We can mostly agree on this given the struggle for equality that has always existed and has taken to the streets in our present moment. Some like to point to Darwin as if he came up with a theory that was not so obvious. For what is survival of the fittest if not a description of man’s propensity to lord it over the weak? As Marilynne Robinson often writes, and with most depth in The Death of Adam, survival of the fittest is like saying survival of the one who survived. And, I would add, it just might be that the ones who have survived are not only not the fittest but are also not the most loving of creatures. Treating all as equals is true justice or love.

“The supernatural virtue of justice consists of behaving exactly as though there were equality when one is the stronger in an unequal relationship” (143).

Weil goes on to give real meaning to St. Paul’s words through a simple question:

“How can a man give meat to Christ, if he is not raised at least for a moment to the state of spoken by St. Paul, when he no longer lives in himself but Christ lives in him?” (139).

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When you come across someone who is in a weaker position than you, this is where you empty yourself out and allow Christ to enter so it is Christ and not you doing the giving.

Weil makes it difficult for someone who follows Christ to make excuses for many of the world leaders today, especially ours. To turn away from our responsibility to love one another, which is justice, is to turn away from God and our birthright, which is that we are born in His image, and thus have an obligation to love without lording it over everyone.

“The true God is the God we think of as Almighty, but as not exercising his power everywhere, for he is found only in the heavens or in secret here below” (144).

Helping the other, losing yourself in that help and receiving nothing in return except the possible gratitude of the one you helped, goes against human nature, but it does not go against what Christ taught us, and obviously does not come from just studying Scripture, since there are many religious who are still Darwinian. In fact, the study itself is only the preparation for the action and could never be a substitute for it. Weil describes this act as a “flash” so that it is not something that can be premeditated or done by thinking rationally when you come across a situation requiring your immediate attention and love.

“Christ taught us that the supernatural love of our neighbor is the exchange of compassion and gratitude which happens in a flash between two beings, one possessing and the other deprived of human personality. One of the two is only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him. Those who pass by this thing scarcely notice it, and a few minutes afterward do not even know that they saw it. Only one stops and turns his attention toward it. The actions that follow are just the automatic effect of this moment of attention. The attention is creative” (147).

If we all truly believed that we ought not lord it over another just because we happen to be stronger, then we would awaken to life as sharing in all that God has given; not simply as taking what you can take and then justifying it by a secular excuse of being the fittest. This holds true for the stranger you meet on the road who is “bleeding beside a ditch” as well as the stranger in front of you who has committed a crime.

“Whatever a man may want, in cases of crime as in those of the highest virtue, in the minutest preoccupations as in the greatest designs, the essence of his desire always consists in this, that he wants above all things to be able to exercise his will freely. To wish for the existence of this free consent in another, deprived of it by affliction, is to transport oneself into him; it is to consent to affliction oneself, that is to say to the destruction of oneself. It is to deny oneself. In denying oneself, one becomes capable under God of establishing someone else by a creative affirmation. One gives oneself in ransom for the other. It is a redemptive act” (148)

What strikes me here is this: not only is the love which Weil describes redemptive; it is creative and therefore it is man reaching the summit of being imaged as God.

“God thought that which did not exist, and by this thought brought it into being” (149).

Oddly, we often think about man’s creativity in activities that tend towards destruction. Man can build weaponry that can destroy not only man, but all of life over which man has “dominion.” We make better and heavier equipment to take every last mineral out of the earth believing God gives to us without expecting that we, created in His image, should give too. Perhaps we have limited our understanding of creativity in the same way we have limited our understanding of success.

For Christians, though, lifting another up, raising them out of their affliction is the ultimate act of creativity as it partakes in creation. And, it is through such creativity upon which deepening our faith depends:

“Faith, says Saint Paul, is the evidence of things not seen. In this moment faith is present as much as love” (149)

Ultimately, for Weil, being faithful is not the same as piety, unless your piety comes from paying attention. Paying attention is central to Weil’s turn toward God. When we open our eyes and see the afflicted before us, we raise up the afflicted. Paying attention is the work we must do before entering into the sacred act of creativity.

“Justice in punishment can be defined in the same way as justice in almsgiving. It means giving our attention to the victim of affliction as to a being and not a thing; it means wishing to preserve in him the faculty of free consent” (153).

Every person who suffers from affliction is brought into being by our recognition of them, of our seeing a person standing before us and treating him or her equal to ourselves. Weil reminds us that Jesus died as a common criminal, afflicted; not as a martyr. If we seek to fulfill God’s intention for us to live in his image, then we must work to raise up the afflicted. This is what Scripture, from Genesis to the Cross is saying to us, for it is only in raising up the afflicted, in this act of supernatural creativity, where true salvation can be found.

But, what does Weil mean by paying attention? Some might compare it with mindfulness, and perhaps it is just that, but it would have to be in a strict Buddhist context, and not how our secular society has simply turned it into something that only takes a minute. Paying attention is not sitting in meditation, although, meditation can prepare you for it. Weil writes in her essay on “School Studies” that studying is a way to prepare our young for paying attention. We must remember, though, that studying and meditation are only preparations for paying attention when you are called to do so.

I think it is important to remember here that Weil is talking about punishment under Love of Neighbor, and she is doing it with faith in God. Therefore, paying attention, through mindfulness or studies cannot be stripped of its context without the danger of creating really smart mindful thieves who give much attention to hurting others rather than helping them.

Punishment, she writes, is like “almsgiving” it “enshrines the real presence of God and constitutes something in the nature of a sacrament” (152).

Taking in what Weil is saying here is difficult because we all know how abusive the system of justice can be. Just like almsgiving, which can be manipulated and abused by people, who do it to enrich their own lives by attaching penalties and conditions to their giving, or who make a great effort to show how much they give, so too can punishment become obscene and defiled. We have seen abuse and defilement in both our seculars and our religious so positing one as the cure for the other seems unhelpful and a distraction.

 

“Christ spared the woman taken in adultery. The administration of punishment was not in accordance with the earthly life which was to end on the Cross. He did not however prescribe the abolition of penal justice. He allowed stoning to continue. Wherever it is done with justice, it is therefore he who throws the first stone. As he dwells in the famished wretch whom a just man feeds, so he dwells in the condemned wretch whom a just man punishes” (152).

Christ was less interested in fighting institutions because they are ultimately man-made and can be changed when the hearts of the men making them change. If there is one thing we should be learning from our current president is that our institutions will not save us, and can only be as good as the people who represent them. They do not run on their own and they can change from day to day. What we value as humans will end up running our institutions if we are not careful enough to take our lives and the lives around us seriously.

“Nothing is more frightful than the spectacle, now so frequent, of an accused, whose situation provides him with nothing to fall back upon but his own words, and who is incapable of arranging these words because of his social origin and lack of culture, as he stands broken down by guilt, affliction, and fear, stammering before judges who are not listening and who interrupt him in tones of ostentatious refinement” (156).

I think here of the refugees at our border who have been stripped of their status as human beings. There are many who find this just; after all, they have no business fleeing for their lives, no business being afflicted, and certainly no business being without means to help themselves. The intention has been to punish, but the punishment has been meted out without attention, without love and therefore unjust. It is punishment founded upon contempt and not justice.

As a culture, a global culture in some instances, we are full of contempt for others. Weil has something instructive to say about contempt as it arises within our system of justice.

“Such a contact, being uninterrupted, necessarily contaminates, and the form this contamination takes is contempt” (154).

I believe here Weil is touching upon the fear of contagion we often feel when one who suffers is before us. We do not want suffering to contaminate our lives, take up our time, our resources, our energy until there is no more us left. It is easy to turn the sufferer into something dreaded rather than as a someone who is in pain. This fear of contamination is flowing like an electrical current in our society now. Perhaps we can gain insight into our fear by looking at the metaphors that we have been living under for decades. While many believe the earth is here for our purposes of extraction and enjoyment, it is so often those same people who do not have faith that the good God who gave them “dominion” over it, will provide with abundance. So they live in fear because they have created a little god, or as Karl Barth called, a no-god, that cannot provide or fulfill his promise. And, they are correct, in a sense, since the no-god they have created cannot possibly give them what they want, which is always restricted to themselves and their taking and their enjoyment.

God gives in abundance, and as St. Paul in Corinthians 13:8 exclaims, “Love never ends.” But God’s love does not fall only a few people. Abundance can only make itself and remake itself and renew itself through constant change. Those who are fearful of change of the revolution within the Scriptures are asleep to life as abundance because they do not see Christ in the afflicted. Christ in the afflicted means the message the afflicted bring is abundance.

Weil writes, “Love sees what is invisible” (149), and it seems quite logical, to me at least, that if we want a just society, and if we point to the Bible, and in particular to Christ as the source of our life, then we must raise up the afflicted, those who by pure chance are suffering and are invisible. We can see how God can only be love because He lifts us up, and has given Himself in order to create us. If we truly believe we are made in the image of God then we have it within us to do the same. It is the only love that is real, anything else is false and will eventually die.

Everyone dying in the end might sound hopeful to some, but I’m not so sure we will please God any by acting Darwinian. There are many religious now who believe the apocalypse is upon us, but have no clue what the word actually means. They simply believe that before the city of Sodom and Gomorrah is destroyed, they, like Lot and his family, will be spared. Or, maybe like Noah they will be told to make a boat or a bunker. Quite possibly we believe that God is sparing us right now because of our righteousness. But, I suspect that we have been spared because we still have a lot of work to do; not because we have already done the work in preparation to stand before God and love Him with all our heart.

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