Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Love Thy Neighbour

'It is easy to love the idealized figure of a poor, helpless neighbour, the starving African or Indian, for example; in other words, it is easy to love one’s neighbour as long as he stays far enough from us, as long as there is a proper distance separating us. The problem arises at the moment when he comes too near us, when we start to feel his suffocating proximity – at this moment when the neighbour exposes himself to us too much, love can suddenly turn into hatred.' (Enjoy Your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out, Slavoj Žižek, p.8, 2001).

It is preferable for us nowadays to avoid 'the Real', that is, to adopt a sterilised or sentimental version of events in order to anaesthetise us from any given reality. Christmas is a prime example of this phenomenon. Take this recent advert,

Whilst the advert seeks to simply yet profoundly declare what Christmas is really all about, what it actually does is reiterate the nostalgic, sentimental and sterilised desires within us. The couple are typically white, middle class, the baby quiet, clean and happy. The home starts middle class, and ends in a stable scene, that is, a middle class version. Without doubt there would have been 'great joy' at the birth of Christ, but that joy would also have been accompanied with pain, blood, sweat, tears, fear and uncertainty. What the advert does is once again enable us to avoid 'the Real' and embrace nostalgia. This advert, like much within our church services over this Advent period have little to do with the Incarnation. Christmas 'evangelism' and church services feed off nostalgia and sentimentality, a sentimentality that pulls us away from the God who became flesh in the stench, shit and sin.

Nostalgia is a gaze into the 'mythical past' (Looking Awry, Žižek, 528), a longing for an object that will fill a 'lack', a longing for something that does not really exist but that we create in order to fill a lack or void. Nostalgia is that which we observe from a distance, remembering fondly because we have no way of returning there, forgetting the reality of that distance and any pain within it and longing in some way for a return to it, even if we were not even born then. Advertisers, politicians and the powerful are able to capitalise on this nostalgic longing by providing us with those 'things' that directly fill our nostalgic desires, whether it be national identity, relationships, wealth, lifestyle or whatever. We can buy cars, phones, toys and clothes that fulfil our nostalgic desires, creating with it a superficial sense of belonging and self. The swell in support for the armed forces and Remembrance Day are an example of nostalgia, the belief that through this support we will regain something that is missing, yet what it actually does is deepen the sense of lack because it removes us from 'the Real'.

Nostalgia helps us avoid our neighbour and simply to observe them from a distance in love or hate.

Jesus sat and ate with people to avoid sentimental, stereotyped, fear induced relating. In the very act of a shared meal and common table we encounter the Real. Our different ways we eat, the smell of food, talking with your mouth full, spilling drinks, dropped food, delight in taste, satisfaction in a full belly, conversation, laughter - all this draws us into reality with our neighbour, our shared humanity.

When confronted with the closeness of the neighbour, such as the prostitute who kisses and bathes his feet, Jesus does not respond in hatred or disgust because of her close proximity, rather he loves her, accepts her and speaks forgiveness over her. The disciples and religious leaders respond to her in disgust, for she represents the neighbour who has become too close, has invaded our space and now cannot be observed from a distance.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is a powerful example of who our neighbour is;

‘Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:25-37

The Samaritan is the feared Neighbour, the one who we are least like, prejudiced towards and afraid of. What Jesus does here is challenge our love in relation to our proximity to Neighbour. Here our love has to go beyond the distant gaze, the sympathetic nod towards Neighbour that may result in my giving some money during Comic Relief, but is actually a love that goes to my Neighbour and is able to deal with being fully exposed to them and to see in them our very selves, our common humanity, their divine image. 

I fear that much of the angst felt within the Christian community over certain issues has more to do with our fear of the Neighbour's 'suffocating proximity'. In other words, we do what we can to speak in ways that enable us to keep people at arms length, justifying it with an appeal to Scripture/Tradition without having to be near them. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' is an excuse not to be near our Neighbour. The angst Christians have towards others stems from the way the Neighbour has come so near to us, is present with us. Indeed, they are washing and kissing Jesus' feet and our fear turns to indignant rage.

At Christmas the Word became flesh, God calling us into relationship, yet too often we handle Scripture in such a way that the text is divorced from the flesh of right relating.

Christmas challenges all that we know about God and our common humanity. We encounter the Divine in the hidden corners surrounded by unexpected people. Indeed, God Himself is revealed to us in ways beyond all that we expect, believe and want God to be like - the hungry cry of this newborn into the darkness of the night is the voice of the eternal God made flesh. This vulnerable, helpless child becomes to us our Neighbour. All the emotions, responsibilities, complexities and challenges a newborn gives to us reveals to us what it is like to love Neighbour. 

We live in difficult times where relationships between communities are strained through rhetoric,  miscommunication, propaganda and fear. Christmas gathers us together to re-member our humanity, a humanity gathered in and redeemed through the Christ child, God made flesh. God beckons us around the scene of the first Christmas birth in our shared humanity to a place where all are welcome, where all are equals, where the love of God is seen in the face of those least like me.

Who is my neighbour? Jesus calls us to go and learn what this means.

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