Tag Archives: Neighbour

How do we decide what to care about?

This world we are living can be a heart-breaking place. As I write this, thousands are dead after an earthquake in Nepal and many, many more face health and housing crises in the aftermath. Just last week, 28 Ethiopian Christians were cruelly murdered for no reason other than their faith. According to the UN, there are now 4 million registered Syrian refugees who have fled from the persecution and destruction wreaked by ISIS.

Like many other Australians, I was horrified this morning to hear of the brutal executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. There are people I know personally who knew them personally and my heart is heavy for them – I can’t even begin to imagine what their families are feeling.

But I was also horrified that I only learned the plight of Mary Jane Veloso the day before she was to be executed. Why have I not been hearing her story for months?

Similarly, while I rejoiced this morning with the news that 293 women and girls have been rescued by the Nigerian military from their appalling captivity to Boko Haram, the fact that none of these are the girls kidnapped from Chibok over a year ago reminds me that there are many more stories of suffering happening in that place than the one I have heard about.

Which leads me to these questions: How do we decide what to care about? In a world with so much suffering and injustice, how and why do some situations become known and provoke massive outpourings of response, while others go unheeded? Who decides, and is it okay to let someone else decide for us?

I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but that’s okay. My goal here is simply to do some thinking out loud.

Certainly the media can be an easy target, as “they” appear to choose which stories we hear and which we don’t and we can’t always be sure what their motives are. I do wonder, however, if a big part of their agenda is presenting us with the stories they think we want to hear. Which puts the question back on us and our self-interest .

Social media can be seen as playing a helpful role in allowing people to have more of a voice and to probe beyond what those with seemingly big corporate agendas are telling us. Certainly the fact that I have a handful of friends on facebook who live in Nepal has helped me feel like I have slightly more insight into the realities of what is happening on the ground there.

And yet it is often difficult to understand why some stories go viral and so many others don’t. Why do we collectively choose to care about some things more than others?

Social media also seems to feed into a kind of “Compassion Fatigue” – where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of suffering in the world that we just want to crawl under the covers and watch videos of cats. It also seems to lead us towards setting up Compassion as a Zero Sum Game – where we assume that by caring about one thing someone is by default not caring about something else, and we then attack them for that perceived lack of compassion.

Two passages from the Bible are challenging me about these questions today.

The first is in Deuteronomy 15, where Moses is explaining to the people of Israel how they are to put into practice the call to respond to the poor and needy. One of the things I love about biblical Hebrew is how abstract concepts are often spoken about by grounding them in physical, concrete, realities. So when he speaks about being compassionate and generous, he literally talks about what you “see with your eyes” and what you can “reach with your hand.” To me, this suggests that the call to respond to the poor and needy is in some way contingent upon us and our situation. If we see injustice, if we can reach out to suffering, then we are called to do so. Once we have become aware, and we know that it is in our ability to act, to turn away is in and of itself an act of injustice.

The challenge we face in our global, interconnected world is that we have the ability to see injustice and need in so many places, and we have the ability in our hands to make a difference in so many ways. We have readily accepted the privilege of knowledge and information and connection that technology has brought us, but I’m not sure we have so readily accepted the challenge.

The second passage is the very well known story Jesus tells in Luke 10. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story in response to a man asking a question not that dissimilar from the ones I am asking today. “Who is my neighbour?” “Who am I to care about?” And Jesus’ answer is quite confronting. Your neighbour might just be the last person you expect, the person so unlike you, the person who hates you, the person who has no connection to you at all and no ability to repay you for your kindness.

As I continue to scroll through my facebook or twitter feed, as I click on the links people send me, as I engage with the stories of what is happening in our world, what does it look like for me to respond to these my neighbours, whether their story is viral or hardly known? What can I do today with the images I have seen with my own eyes and the resources I have in my own hand to show compassion and justice?

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?