The above quotation is one often cited by Christians and non-Christians alike when it comes to ethical living. I would guess that quite a few (from both camps) of those who quote it don’t know where it comes from. In fact, it is a law/command found in many places in the Bible: originally in the Old Testament, and subsequently in Jesus’ teachings of the New Testament. Its scriptural prevalence, as well as its simplicity, make it a solid foundational statement of Christian ethics. It is, of course, not as simple to follow as it is to say, but nonetheless it is a useful starting point.
The readings I’ve been doing lately for my Vocational Formation and Church Leadership class have called this command to mind, at least for me. We read Touch, by Rudy Rasmus, which is a description of the unorthodox ministry philosophy of the author, Pastor Rudy. In short, he seeks for his church in downtown Houston to be a place where absolutely all people feel welcome and loved. Regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, appearance, religious history, educational background, addiction, personal hygiene, or economic level. In order to live out this kind of ministry, Pastor Rudy advocates total openness and risk-taking. You can’t be truly welcoming to someone if you’re putting up barriers due to your own fear or discomfort. God loves every single person immensely and unconditionally, and as the followers of the Son of God, we are called to imitate this love to the best of our ability. It is a worthy vision, and the amazing vitality of Pastor Rudy’s church speaks for itself when it comes to this ministry’s effectiveness.
Another reading we did, this one by the provocative black theologian James Cone (from the book, Risks of Faith), drove home once again this idea that ministry needs to take a stand for God’s love. Just talking about God’s love or God’s justice or any such thing is nothing more than blowing hot air, if it’s not accompanied by the appropriate actions. Cone wisely quotes Elie Wiesel, who said that “we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim” (p. 145). This sentiment lends urgency to Pastor Rudy’s type of ministry. We can’t just keep on keeping on with the same old church programs and the same old worship services, as if preserving the status quo will do anything to address the needs of our neighbors. Rather, preserving the status quo means preserving the privilege of those who are already privileged and preserving the oppression of those who are already oppressed. Not exactly loving, if you ask me. There needs to be some change, and Pastor Rudy’s model gives us an example of what that might look like. At the very least, he points us in the right direction.
The one problem I have with Pastor Rudy’s model for ministry is that it seems a little too extreme. What I mean by that is, I think he does really well at “love your neighbor” but not so well at “as yourself.” Aren’t both parts included in the commandment? I worry that Pastor Rudy’s model could be too easily co-opted to become an excuse for putting your own needs aside as you tend exclusively to others. I don’t think that’s what he’s advocating, but his emphasis on risk-taking is a little much for me considering the fact that he very rarely mentions such things as personal safety. I think there should be a better balance between the two. We should love our neighbors. But in order to love our neighbors as ourselves, we also need to love ourselves. At seminary, we are told all the time to do “self-care,” which is essentially to love yourself. I think this is important. Not to the exclusion of loving neighbors! But enough to give yourself the energy, the motivation, and the resources to actually be able to love your neighbors. In terms of the practicality of ministry, I believe that such self-care requires some level of personal and/or professional boundaries that would make some of Pastor Rudy’s strategies more difficult. I am not advocating for ministry at a distance, or inauthentic relationships, but simply for the right of a minister not to have to sacrifice everything for the sake of her or his neighbors (e.g. congregants). This goes for people of all types of careers, not just parish pastors. We must find a way to be willing to take some risks for the sake of others, but also to know when it’s necessary to take a stand for our own well-being. I make no claims of knowing exactly how to find this balance; however, I believe it is something worth striving for.