Our Selective Conscience

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18.

And who, exactly, is my “neighbor”?

Richard Dawkins has achieved notoriety for his critique of religion, citing as one of his criticisms that it is exclusive. He notes the Biblical teaching found in Leviticus to “love your neighbor as yourself” and points out that “‘Love thy neighbor’ didn’t mean what we now think it means. It meant only ‘Love another Jew.'”[1] The fact that Jesus is asked in the Gospel of Luke: “Who is my neighbor”[2] suggests some uncertainty as to just how far love is to be extended.

Dawkins drew upon the work of John Hartung, an evolutionary anthropologist, to arrive at his conclusion. If Dawkins – and Hartung – are correct regarding the exclusive tone of that text, the timeless command to love our neighbor loses some of its shine.

Before we decide just who our neighbors are, perhaps we have to consider what it means to “love”. Is there a base line, the lowest bar if you will, that can be identified for behavior that qualifies as “love”? If Jesus is to be taken seriously in the story of The Good Samaritan, the bar is set high. Compassion for the suffering of others and a willingness to go to extreme ends to assuage that suffering presents us with a considerable challenge in our relationships with others. And the fact that Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example of the neighbor suggests that professors Dawkins and Hartsung are correct in saying “neighbor” was less all-encompassing that many have assumed. Part of the sting of the story in Luke is the fact that Jesus uses as an example of neighbor one who was so disdained by those listening to him.

I was thinking about this when I listened to the statement President Barak Obama made following the execution of American journalist James Foley. Mr. Obama noted such a ruthless deed, videotaped and shared in all its brutality for all to see “shocks the conscience of the entire world.” Mr. Obama went out on a limb and declared: “No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and do every day.” In spite of Prof. Dawkins’ best efforts to divert our attention away from religion, it seems we just can’t help ourselves. We are intent to bring God into the scenes of our lives – the blessed ones and the brutal ones alike.

Mr. Obama’s statement begs the question: What would a just God stand for in terms of our response? It seems we are on thin ice when we suggest the global conscience is somehow “shocked” by this recent act of brutality. What of the brutality of war planes whose bombs are just as lethal to the innocent by-stander as to the targeted terrorist? What of the violence on America’s streets fueled by under and unemployment and poverty? What of opportunities readily available to some and completely denied to others because of the color of their skin? What of military aid to governments while humanitarian aid languishes?

Mr. Obama might be the one who is shocked to learn that many find our own policies in this country as brutal, as indiscriminate, as senseless as what we all just watched out of Syria. Who is our neighbor, and what are our responsibilities toward them?

In the most recent edition of Biblical Archeology Review, Richard Elliot Friedman takes on the question. With a sharp exegetical scalpel Mr. Friedman looks at Leviticus 19 and points out the Biblical word for “neighbor” in the Hebrew Bible is re’a – a word used some 52 times in the first five books of the Scriptures. To summarize Friedman’s more detailed piece, the word re’a refers in Genesis to a Canaanite in one circumstance and to everyone on earth in another. It refers to an Israelite in Exodus 2 and an Egyptian in Exodus 11.[3]

Friedman’s article concludes with this admonition regarding our love of neighbor: “You can decide whether you will follow it in your own life. But don’t change what it means.”[4]

Our president’s conscience might be shocked by the execution of James Foley; but we all need to be a little less selectively shocked when it comes to suffering inflicted on others. Jesus was adept at shocking people. His story of neighborliness requires us to see both the Jew and the Samaritan in the mix of life. If we insist on bringing God into our politics we have to broaden our understanding of “neighbor” to see not just one – but two men in that most troubling photo.


[1] See Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

[2] Luke 10:29.

[3] The word refers to an Israelite (Exodus 2:13), a Canaanite (Genesis 38:12), an Egyptian (Exodus 11:2) and to everyone on earth (Genesis 11:3).

[4] Richard Elliot Friedman, “Love Your Neithbor – Only Israelites or Everyone?”. Published in Biblical Archeology Review, September / October 2014. Volume 40 NO. 5. Pages 49-52.



Mark Demers

Want to talk about sex, politics, spirituality? So do I. I grew up in a religious home in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our country was reeling from assassinations and the devastation of the Viet Nam War. Looking for something beautiful, I got a degree in music, married the love of my life and had children. Looking for God, I then went to seminary. Looking for something that might transform the world, I became a local church pastor. Now, I’m always looking for people who want to talk about important things. I cherish conversations with emerging leaders, people who are antsy to try an idea they believe would change the world for the better. I’d would love to hear from you.