“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
We are just a couple of days past one of the most contentious U.S. elections of our lives. As I type this, Trump still has refused to concede the election to Biden, but all major news outlets project that Biden won. For some of us, this news is worthy of celebration around the world. For some of us, this is terrible news, which leaves us scared for the future.
So what do we do with that? How do we heal and move forward? Some of us are going to see family we very much disagree with politically over the couple of months, though we’ll see less of them than we have in previous years, sadly. How do we handle conversations with people who are filled with fear about a thing that brings us such joy or vice versa?
The key, for me, lies in the quote above. We, as Christians, are called to love our neighbors, friends, and family. Regardless of our feelings about any one political issue, we have to find ways to love those who strongly disagree with us. And, as Dorothy Day points out, this isn’t just about our relationships with family members. This is about our relationship to the Divine. That is a high bar, and even if it feels impossible to get over, we are called to try.
But what does it mean to love other people?
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”
David W. Augsburger
I find this quote wonderful, thought-provoking, and convicting. Our call to love our neighbors, is a call to listen to them. It is not our call to “be nice” to those with whom I disagree. Nor is it our call to convince them how wrong they are. It is our call to listen to them and to help them feel heard. As Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Small Favor says, “Caring about someone isn’t complicated. It isn’t easy. But it isn’t complicated, either. Kinda like lifting the engine block out of a car.”
Sitting and listening to someone’s fears and concerns, especially when we feel very differently, is incredibly difficult. A good routine of spiritual practices can give us the ability to hold a space for people, but that doesn’t get the engine block out of the car by itself. But this is where the Dorothy Day quote above comes back into play. When we are sitting and listening to someone, we are loving them, and we only love the Ground of All Being as much as we love the people around the (socially distanced and outside) table. This is hard work, but it’s hard work we’re called to do. It’s also the necessary work of living in community with people.
There are, though, some people, we can’t love. Some of us might be having Thanksgiving with someone who assaulted us, or we might have a parent who gaslit us so much in our youth that we can’t listen to them anymore. We might be a victim of domestic violence (if you are, please get help). Or we might be in any number of other situations where, for our own health, we cannot listen and love another person.
This is where Martin Luther’s idea of “alien belief” (iustitia aliena) may come in helpful. Very basically, alien belief comes from outside of us. When we recite the creeds together (in liturgical traditions), we are affirming those parts of the creeds we believe for others who cannot affirm them. In turn, others are believing for us those parts we cannot affirm. I think we can expand that into a concept of “alien love”. If there are people in my life I cannot possibly love because of trauma, others can do that work for me. I, then, have the responsibility to love those people others cannot love.
Please take care of yourselves, dear reader. Brush up on your spiritual practices. And then do the simple difficult work of loving your neighbors by listening to them.
Bart Hennigan has a Master of Public and International Affairs degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He completed Sewanne's Education for Ministry and is pursuing certification as a spiritual director through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. When not reading or discussing philosophy and theology, Bart is a stay-at-home father of three, which has taught him much about patience and the importance of silence.