As former President George W. Bush made the rounds recently to push his new book, I thought back to the 2004 presidential campaign. It was Jan. 11, 2004 when Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean lost my vote.
At a Dean rally in Hawkeye, Iowa a man named Dale Ungerer complained that Dean and other Democratic presidential candidates were causing more divisions in the country through their constant bashing of Bush.
"Please tone down the garbage, the mean mouthing, the tearing down of your neighbor and being so pompous," Ungerer told the former Vermont governor and then Democratic front runner. "You should help your neighbor and not tear him down."
To which Dean replied, "George Bush is not my neighbor."
To his credit, Ungerer shot back, "Yes, he is."
Ungerer was right. Of course George W. Bush is Dean's neighbor. Bush is my neighbor. I am Bush's neighbor. Barack Obama is my neighbor. Sarah Palin is my neighbor. Even Osama bin Laden is my neighbor.
While arguments can be made whether politicians are truly "enemies" or just people with whom we have deep disagreements, it is clear that someone like Osama bin Laden is intent on doing evil. He is an enemy. But, in God's eyes, we are not allowed to make any distinction between him and Bush. We are all one and the same. We are all neighbors, and as such we are commanded to love them as much as we love ourselves.
But we, like the lawyer who quizzed Jesus in Luke's gospel, are searching for the loophole. We ask "who is my neighbor?" in the hope that there will be someone -- anyone -- who we can scratch off the list. People who intend to kill us or those we love must be an exception to this rule, right?
However, there are no loopholes. Everyone we meet and everyone we hear about are our neighbors. Arabs, Israelis, Chinese, Japanese, North and South Koreans, Indians, Iowans, Republicans, Democrats, Cubs fans, lefties, blondes, conservative Christians and drag queens. They are all neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves.
I struggle with this concept. I don't want Osama bin Laden to be my neighbor. I don't want George W. Bush to be my neighbor. I find the actions of both men to be despicable. I find their ideologies to be odious and in a word, "evil." I have to love them like I love myself? The very idea is repulsive.
But Jesus calls us to do the impossible: to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. And your neighbor is every single person on the face of the earth, whether they bake brownies or mastermind the death of thousands. Impossible! We cannot do it. There are days we cannot stir good feelings for the person ahead of us in traffic, much less some man whose life of desperation has led him to believe that terrorizing and killing other human beings is the solution to his problems.
The parable of the Good Samaritan reveals just how subversive and radical Jesus' neighbor message was, and how we've neutered that message today. We know the story well. A man is left near death after he falls among thieves on a dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The first person to pass by after this horrible crime is a priest, but he passes by on the other side of the road. If the beaten man were dead, touching him would make him unclean. Best not to take the chance.
The next person to come by is a Levite, a religious leader of the day who assisted the priest. He too passes by on the other side. Jesus gives no explanation, but perhaps he was afraid the robbers were still nearby or that he'd be late for temple and the priest before him would be upset with him. Best not to take the chance.
Then a Samaritan comes along, and here is where the story gets hairy for the lawyer who questioned Jesus. Jews hated Samaritans and thought of them as less than human -- kind of like how many religious people today think of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Surely, the lawyer must be thinking at this point, this sub-human would pass the man too if such well-respected men as the priest and the Levite passed by. But Jesus had a rude awakening for the lawyer as he told about how the Samaritan stopped to help the dying man, binding his wounds and taking him to an inn to care for him.
"Which of these three," Jesus asked the lawyer, "do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"
The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say "Samaritan." He could only describe the man as "the one who showed him mercy."
To which Jesus said to him -- and to us today -- "go and do likewise."
This is the revolutionary message: God demands mercy, not sacrifice. It is our human condition to demand sacrifice and forget mercy, but God calls us to put aside our violent nature. We must love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The good news is that we are not commanded to like our neighbor. We do not have to like men like Osama, but we must seek to understand them -- to discover what makes their hatred so deep and abiding. We must understand that what we have in common with Osama is the very real human condition of suffering. His suffering is our suffering. Out of his suffering he has come to believe that through acts of terror his suffering will somehow be alleviated. He is misguided -- he believes that violence leads to peace -- just as our government believes the same thing. But as Martin Luther King Jr. understood, "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. ... The chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate -- must be broken."
When we look around our world, at all the wars and murders and hungry, desperate people, we may believe that breaking that chain reaction of evil is impossible, but it's being done.
In South Africa, where many people were brutalized and killed under apartheid, it would seem logical that after apartheid was struck down that they would seek revenge on those who caused them so much pain.
Instead, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 to promote reconciliation and national unity while confronting apartheid-era human rights violations, as the act that created the commission says, "on the basis that there is a need for understanding, but not for vengeance."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells one story that illustrates Jesus' revolutionary point about who is our neighbor:
"In Bisho, some former Ciskei Defense Force officers testified about the Bisho massacre. One of them alienated the people with his insensitive tirade. Then another confessed his part and asked for forgiveness. In the audience were people who had been wounded in that incident, people who had lost loved ones; but when that white Army officer asked for forgiveness, they did not rush to strangle or assault him. Unbelievably, they applauded."
This is Jesus' challenge: Love those who actively seek to kill you or those you love. Even they are your neighbor. This is radical, neighbor love in action.
Go, and do likewise.