What might our response to Ebola have to say about what it means to love our neighbours?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the biblical principle of loving your neighbour and whether I really understand it properly, let alone put it into practice consistently.

Because I’m convicted that even our compassion and advocacy for others can sometimes demonstrate the insidious depths of our culture’s self-interest. When it comes to loving others, I’ve heard a number of people quote the principle this way “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” The problem is that is not actually quite what the Bible says. The command appears nine times in the Bible, but each time it simply reads, “love your neighbour as yourself.” And it got me wondering what the difference might be.

Does hearing “as you love yourself” feed into the self-focus, and even narcissism, of our modern culture? Would the ancient readers of the Bible even have had such a concept as “self-love”?

More importantly, does “love your neighbour as you love yourself” too often become “love your neighbour after you love yourself”?

Certainly I have heard it explained that way – that you can’t love others until you learn to love yourself. But is that true? Or does it too easily become an excuse for not caring for others because we haven’t got all our own issues sorted out first? Does it stop us from reaching out with compassion to those in need because we subconsciously see ourselves as a higher priority than them?

So, what might be the difference between reading the call as to “love as you love yourself” and to “love as yourself”? Some people might say there isn’t one. But I wonder …

The Hebrew preposition כ used in Lev 19:18 is found all throughout the Old Testament in comparisons, similes and metaphors. Could it be that the idea of loving your neighbour as yourself means actually seeing them as you? Loving them as if they actually were you rather than seeing them as “other” or “outsider”? Certainly Leviticus 19:34 seems to lead in this direction, where the same command is applied corporately to foreigners in the land of Israel – they are to be loved not as outsiders, but just as if they were native-born, insiders.

What would it look like to truly love those who we think are not like us as if they were us? And would that change the world’s response to what is going on right under our noses every day?

So what does all this have to do with Ebola? A friend tweeted me this graph yesterday about the number of people who have died in Africa over the last 8 months. I don’t know about you, but I find it very confronting.

Ebola stats
Image source

It’s confronting to consider the global panic over Ebola in comparison to other diseases and to ask the question, why? What makes the difference in what we choose to care about?

(It’s also confronting to be reminded that we somewhat condescendingly talk about “Africa” as one place with a single story rather than recognise the huge variety of experience within its 54 countries, but perhaps that’s a separate issue).

Could it be that our concern, fear and panic around Ebola is more to do with ourselves than those who are dying from it? At our core, are we afraid of Ebola because if we caught it, we might die from it, whereas the other reasons people across Africa are dying every day don’t bother us so much because we know they are unlikely to happen to us? Is this an example of “loving as we love ourselves” because subconsciously we know if we were hungry we would just eat, whereas if we caught Ebola we might actually have to confront our mortality?

Is this why the death of one person “like us” gets so much more attention than thousands who we see as “other”? (See Rob Oakeshott’s letter to Thomas Eric Duncan for some challenging questions about that)

These are just some of my questions. The more pressing ones are these: How can we respond differently? How do we overcome such deeply ingrained self-interest that it even comes out in the way that we think we are showing compassion and care for others?

We need a whole new paradigm. As a Christian, thankfully I remember that I already have one. Jesus doesn’t just affirm the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus redefines who our neighbours are, and even calls us to love those we see as our enemies in the same way. And He sets a whole new standard for measuring what love looks like.

In the end, whether its “as you love yourself” or “as yourself”, using ourselves as the standard for how we choose to love others seems to leave us open to excuses and provisos. Jesus gives His disciples a new commandment, using Himself as the standard for what love for others is to look like. “Love one another as I have loved you.” Just imagine if we could begin to show that kind of incarnational, self-sacrificial, servant-hearted love – love that puts others above ourselves – in the way we respond to the every day tragedies of our world. How different might that look?

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One thought on “What might our response to Ebola have to say about what it means to love our neighbours?

  1. Thanks for this Melinda. As you say, the debate around the exact wording and understanding of “love your neighbour as yourself” becomes moot in the light of Jesus’ new command. I almost wonder why we spend so much time teaching on the former, when the latter is much clearer (but definitely more confronting)?!

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