Just Gonna Love My Neighbor

“I’m just gonna love my neighbor as best I can.”

This is a refrain we at Metanoia Collective have heard a lot lately in conversations with fellow white evangelicals. For various reasons — tactical, political, theological — many folks who read our blog feel they cannot lend their support to initiatives for civil rights like Black Lives Matter. The whole issue of race in America is (they say) too complicated. Too fraught. The BLM movement is too politicized. Too liberal. Too grandstanding. Too accusatory. Too controversial. Too self-righteous. Etcetera etcetera.

To which we say: perhaps so!

Perhaps the tactics, politics, or theologies of BLM and their coalition of supporters are misguided in the ways our readers specify.

But the point I would like to make is just this: the alternative course of action that so many of our conversation partners propose is simply untenable.

“I’m just gonna love my neighbor as best I can.”

This kind of claim sounds pious. It means: “On an individual, interpersonal, and local level, I am going to strive to my uttermost to practice love. But beyond that, I just don’t know — or I just can’t go.”

i-love-my-neighbor-happy-neighbor-dayBut imagine for one moment if the black and white evangelical abolitionists of the early 1800s had taken that approach. What would have happened if, instead of speaking up and agitating for the emancipation of enslaved black Americans, they had contented themselves to be loving and responsible (if also politically agnostic and disinvolved) neighbors in their churches and communities?

Or: imagine if the multitude of ordinary black Christians in Montgomery, Alabama had, instead of boycotting the city transit system, determined that the best thing for them to do was just to be loving towards their personal circle of friends and neighbors? Or if the black students in Greensboro, North Carolina had decided not to put themselves at risk by engaging in sit-ins? Or if folks declined to march from Selma to Montgomery in the spring of 1965? After all, these actions were each very controversial and grandstanding and self-righteous!

I’ll tell you what would have happened: nothing. Slavery and Jim Crow would have remained the law of the land.

“I’m just gonna love my neighbor as best I can.”

So when white evangelicals make this their purpose statement, it is in fact a rallying cry for doing nothing and maintaining the status quo. It is saying, “I will not step beyond the comfortable, manageable realm of my own friends and acquaintances.”

It is saying, “I will love my neighbor — as long as that means I sustain no risk to my reputation, no change to my politics, and no substantive alteration to my thinking.”

It is saying, “my life is not in jeopardy; I am safe. Maybe this is not true for the black and brown people of my country, but I can only tackle the race problem on an individual, case-by-case basis. Not in any concerted, collective manner!”

But this is not what Christ did, and not what he calls us to.

Jesus Christ demonstrated what love for God and love for neighbor look like. And it did not mean living a modest, quiet, careful life of doting on a few neighbors. It did not mean staying insulated from controversy, politics, and solidarity with the hated people of his society (sinners, tax collectors, and other lowlifes). Jesus wasn’t targeted by the authorities and killed because he was so politically sober-minded and universally well-respected. Au contraire. As Christians and as evangelicals we claim to worship a crucified man as Lord. One could not dream up more of a lightning rod for controversy in the ancient world — even if we’ve lost touch with that and have become pious and respectable defenders of keeping things the same and God-forbid-the-boat-should-rock.

“I’m just gonna love my neighbor as best I can.”

If we white evangelicals make this our mantra, we will excuse ourselves from discipleship to Jesus Christ and we will ensure that later generations look back on us as champions not of his fame but only of our own racial self-interest.  

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