Who is My Neighbor?

On Wednesday of this last week (May 25th), Westboro Baptist Church issued a press release on their website that began “THANK GOD FOR 125 DEAD IN JOPLIN” and promised to picket the visit of President Obama (whom they called the “Beast Anti-Christ”) and Gov. Jay Nixon.  The press release itself is a masterpiece of crazy, but it is accomplishing its goal: once again, WBC’s message is front and center.  To say that this message, or more precisely its method of delivery, angers people is putting it mildly.  From parodies of the their signs like “God Hates Signs” and “God Hates Figs” or “God Hates Plastic Bags” and counter messages like “‘God is Love, Hate is Stupid” and “Love Knows No Gender” to threats of violence and even actual violence itself, WBC provokes very strong reactions from all of us.  They piss us off, make want to fight and spawn hate-filled language of our own.  And, it doesn’t help.  If anything, our reaction drives them to new heights of madness.  Which makes me wonder, is it possible we’re coming at this problem from the wrong direction?

In several places throughout the Gospel, Jesus tells us to love to love our neighbor (here, here and here).  Now, in reality, the three passages listed more than likely refer to the same incident, because biblical scholars tell us that the Gospel of Mark was written first (circa 70 C. E.) and that Matthew and Luke borrowed liberally from it.  I do think it’s telling that all three authors felt this story was important enough to include.  In fact, in the  passage from Matthew, Jesus says “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  Sounds like a pretty big deal, huh?  But, really, it’s all context for what I’m talking about.  The meat of today’s post comes from the Luke passage, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Here, the story goes beyond mere commandment and gets into actual practice, because the scribe asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” and Jesus goes on to relate what may be one the hardest things to stomach in his message: that even the most despised person we can think of is our neighbor and, if we want to follow Him, we have to love them.  We can justify our continued hatred of Fred Phelps and his flock by telling ourselves that no Samaritan was ever as offensive as they are, but that’s irrelevant.  We’ll never know if that’s true and even if it is, it doesn’t matter.  If the man we follow was able to forgive his persecutors even as they subjected Him to a hideous, humiliating death, don’t you think we can find it in our hearts to show a little love to the folks at WBC? 

If that doesn’t cut it for you, there’s always the words of St. Paul.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul told us not to get bogged down in revenge and payback, saying:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
   if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head”s

Maybe, possibly, if we were to follow this advice, our severely misguided brothers and sisters at WBC might see the light and give up their hate-filled crusade.  Okay, probably not, but we could try…, couldn’t we?