Virtually all the world’s cultures have a version of the golden rule, easily derived with or without any references to the supernatural. For Christians, the usual expression of this, from Matthew 7:12, is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A closely related idea from Christian teachings, summed up in Mark 12:31, is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Deceptively simple, these ideas incorporate more complexity than a first reading might suggest. I’m no Christian nor any kind of expert on Christian understandings of these ideas and related ideas like forgiveness. The most impressive expression I ever heard of this Christian perspective came from then-President Barack Obama on June 18, 2015, after the murder of nine members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama’s a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn I love the sound and dislike the words of, included in the full 37- or 38-minute speech, was incredible. A good written Christian source is Randal Rauser’s 2015 book, “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?”
Christians I admire greatly — John Lewis; my neighbors, who are politically conservative and devout Christians and the best neighbors you could ask for; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; some kin; and others — practice loving their neighbors (literal or figurative neighbors) well. Some non-Christians I have little use for, including another neighbor who’s probably an atheist, are beyond my ability to love.
Self-proclaimed atheist Joseph Stalin and self-proclaimed Christian Adolf Hitler deserved no love from anyone. And who knows whether Dylann Roof, the murderer of those nine people in Charleston in 2015, was a Christian or whether Dimitrios Pagourtzis of Santa Fe is really an atheist? I cannot love or forgive them, whatever I should do.
But what must a nonbeliever do in general? Because I don’t think there’s a God or that anyone died for my sins, must I still love my neighbor? What if that neighbor plays loud music at 3 a.m. or cusses me out if I walk on his lawn? What if she hates me because I don’t like her aggressive dog? Can I hate the “sin” but love the sinner? Isn’t everyone better off if I adopt the idea I saw on a Quaker bumper sticker: “Love Thy Neighbor — No Exceptions”?
Human beings all across Galveston County and where I live in Atlanta, religious and irreligious alike, are as varied in lovability as anyone can imagine. Do they deserve to be loved by their neighbors?
My answer is “yes” — if by that is meant that the default is to love them and to treat them the way I want to be treated. If a neighbor’s music is too loud, she deserves to be asked, cordially, to turn it down. If it gets louder instead, maybe it’s time to call the law — lovingly, of course.
And, I’m firmly convinced, no neighbor near or far deserves to be hated because of his beliefs, opinions, religion, irreligion or politics. Forgiven or respected? Possibly not.
Loved? Yes, at least for openers.