“#Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions!)” proclaims the sign distributed by the Friends Committee on National Legislation and now displayed in front of my Friends meetinghouse. It’s right there on a busy street, out in front of God and everybody! The first time I saw it faces swam before my eyes. Faces of people I find hard to love. Faces of people who’ve hurt me that I don’t want to love or forgive. And these are people of similar race, faith and relative privilege. I actually felt ashamed the first time I saw the sign because I’m telling other people (by virtue of it being in front of my meetinghouse) to do something I haven’t been able to do very well.
Seeing the sign made highly personal recent speculations about the real meaning of yard signs I’ve seen in recent months—and put me on the other end of imaginary conversations about intended and heard meanings. I’ve watched the proliferation of “Thank You Jesus” signs as well as a smaller number of ones proclaiming love and tolerance like the one at my meetinghouse. Since we become like what we focus on, if these signs focus us on Love and Jesus (different ways of talking about the same thing) they’re great. Maybe if I could take them at face value they wouldn’t bug me. But having seen political signs in many of the same yards last fall, I can’t help but feel the same oppositional energy being expressed. It’s hard to say “Yay Love! Yay Jesus!” and leave it at that.
Remembering our mixedness as humans, I want to hear the signs focusing us on Love and Jesus. Remembering our mixedness, I hear messages addressed to those people. (We all have those people. They may differ from situation to situation, but be honest. All it takes is listening for the phrase as you speak or think.)
One way to hear these signs is a proclamation that we are good/right/better than those people who are bad/wrong/worse than we are. They assert our moral superiority and might give a middle-fingered salute to those people—or even just the energy of “take that!” or “so there!” If we are morally superior (in our own eyes, at least) we are looking at someone else with contempt. Contempt is in the hate family of emotions. Contempt belies our focus on Love or Jesus.
We become like what we focus on. If we’re focused on hate (especially those people’s hate, because it means we aren’t acknowledging our own), we’re multiplying it. If we hate hate, we become hateful, regardless the words we use.
I’ve been struggling for several years with Jesus’ command to love my enemies. The sign in my meetinghouse yard caught me in a moment when it pointed out my failure to follow Jesus as perfectly as I’d like to see myself doing. But as I think about Jesus’ teachings on love, the full quote comes to mind. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (italics added). If we focus on loving our neighbor alone, we miss the part that will actually teach us to love, for only as we learn to love ourselves in all our mixedness can we remove our projections onto those people that keep us from loving them.
In loving myself, I’m loving my worst enemy. It’s a process, not an achievement. Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we think of ourselves as a small, scared, needy animal and do whatever it takes to care for that animal self to make it safe and healthy and help it thrive. As we feed and nurture and protect this inner animal, we help it become more what it truly is. And we don’t come home and yell at it or expect it to be a different animal altogether.
Love is what connects everyone and everything at the deepest levels. If God is Love, then Love is God. As we provide health and security for our inner selves, we can sink down into our truest self, the part that’s never been separate from God, the part that knows deep compassion and can make space for loving the world.