Learning to Love My Neighbor

Joella Ranaivoson

March 24, 2024

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” -Jesus (Mark 12:30-31).

Often, when we meet someone new and learn they are from a religious tradition different from our own, an immediate barrier can go up between us. We want to keep some distance. 

I encourage you, dear reader, to remember that yes, you have differences in religion, but first and foremost, you are their neighbor and they are yours. Your neighbor, full stop. Not your Muslim neighbor, nor your Buddhist neighbor, or your Jewish neighbor — just your neighbor. Jesus didn’t put any qualifiers before ‘neighbor,’ and neither do I.

When Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, his instructions for dealing with those neighbors who were radically different called for sacrificial love (Luke 10: 25-37). Jesus calls us to bridge the gap between us by demonstrating love.

Recognize your common ground

When we recognize someone belongs to a faith other than our own, there can be a sense of “Oh, they are different from me.” But you have more in common than you think. More in common than different, I daresay. Start there, with what you share.

Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or even agnostic, think of the common, everyday human experiences you have that are the same between you. You both love your families; you both want what’s best for your kids; you both are working to strike the balance of being present at work and present at home; you both wonder if the world’s going to be ok with all the pain it is in; you both want probably another hour of sleep before having to get up and start the rush of the day.

You are both human. The vast majority of human experiences you walk through, your neighbor also walks through. Differences in religion don’t change that. Don’t allow the difference in tradition to make you feel like you are fundamentally different from each other. Because you aren’t, not actually.

Set aside a conversion agenda

Imagine if your neighbor who happens to be Muslim came to your door, rang the bell, and you answered, glad they came to say hello. As you start catching up, suddenly you feel the tone shifting toward ‘convincing’ energy, of them trying to prove a tenet of their religion to you, like you’re on the debate team. You realize ‘They’re trying to convert me to the truthfulness of their religion!’

That wouldn’t feel nice, would it? You would wonder why they would spend their breath and energy to come to your house to try to convince you of their religion, when you weren't asking, as if you didn’t already have your own. Because you have your own deeply held spiritual beliefs that nurture and structure your life, how presumptuous it seems to think they could talk you into theirs, as if you would abandon your faith because they came with cookies and talking points.

Folly, right?

Let us as people of the Jesus way not commit such folly against our neighbor.

Expect that, as deeply as you hold your beliefs and convictions, so does your neighbor in their faith, unless they suggest otherwise. Are you easily swayed? Neither are most people. Don’t assume their faith is any less precious to them or move to question their commitment to it.

Also, basing your relationship with your neighbor on your need to change them is disingenuous and unkind. It’s not a good foundation on which to build a friendship, and it doesn't make that person feel loved. It makes them feel manipulated, or like your interest in them is conditional.

It’s emotionally violent to feel like your neighbor sees you as a problem or a project, and engages with you only to change your mind, to win you for their their team. There’s no authenticity or integrity in that kind of relational engagement. Making your neighbor into a personal conquest in the name of Jesus is neither neighborly or effective.

Historically, in the West, the Great Commission has been taken and woven into the colonial project such that we no longer know the difference between inviting people to know and follow Jesus and compelling people to take on the culture and way of being of the dominant Western religion and culture. There is a difference.

We make it too hard sometimes

Jesus said to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So, how would you like to be loved by your neighbor? Imagine your literal neighbor if it helps. What would that look like?

Maybe like bringing a meal to pop in the oven when you know the whole household is down and out with a bug. Like keeping an eye on each other’s houses when you go away for vacation. Like watching their kids as you would watch your own when they play in your yard. Like sitting on one of your porches in the evenings when the air is cool and talking about life and how you’re finding it. Caring for one another, respecting one another. Not needing them to become like you as you would hope they would not try to make you like them. Because you like who you are.

All the love you would extend to your own, extend the same to them—that's loving our neighbor as ourselves.

You may worry if you are keeping to Jesus’ command to share the gospel, but I put to you, dear one, how many times in your life have you had a change of heart from an argument? In contrast, how many times has something fundamental shifted in you because you witnessed someone living out a truth that was beautifully compelling?

Being a witness to Jesus means embodying, living. You’re not here to prove anything. You’re here to be a good neighbor. If your neighbor is in a place to notice and their interest is piqued in how you are shaped by the Spirit, then the conversations start and you get to use your words as well as your daily life to witness to Jesus.

Be curious

Remember we’re all human. I encourage you to be as curious about them as you would want any neighbor to seek to become your friend and be curious about you. Curious about your passions, what moves you, what you love, where you grew up, what food you like, how you like to spend your time—human things. Then, when time opens and it’s a two-way street, be curious about the spiritualities that undergird each of your lives.

Remember friend, your neighbor is just your neighbor. Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, agnostic, or any other religion they are, they are first your neighbor. Just as you are theirs. Belong to them as a friend, and you may earn the opportunity to speak more deeply. Show the love—the embodied, practiced, actioned love that Jesus calls us to—just like you would like to be loved. It can be quite simple if we allow it to be.

About the author — Joella Ranaivoson

Joella is an artist using words in writing, songs, and acting to convey truths about being human. Storytelling is the joy. Everything feeds everything, so take it all in and let it feed your creativity.

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