Love your Nazi neighbor?

Somebody in the Jewish community, hundreds of years ago, sat down to count all the commandments of God. We don’t know who it was, or when and where, nor how long it took, but the count became part of Rabbinic teaching: there are 613 commandments.[1] Somebody else determined that there are 365 you-shall-not’s (one for each day of the year) and 268 you-shall’s (one for each bone of the human body), and the numbers don’t add up, but the numbers aren’t the point. We are to know God’s will and word in our bones, head to toe, with our whole being, and we are to live God’s commandments faithfully every day of our life.

When I try to visualize 613 commandments I don’t see some 120 tablets of stone, I see a tree. I see a big tree with a massive trunk, thick branches, tender twigs, and leaves in various shapes and shades of green. I see a tree, rooted in the heavens, with its branches reaching into the remotest corners of the earth, touching every imaginable moment of human life – birth and death, food and drink, what to wear, when to work and rest, how to worship, how to raise children, all of it. But who can remember all 613? And who can apply them faithfully in every circumstance?

Teachers and sages were often asked to summarize the commandments in a succinct teaching: What is the essence of our faithfulness to God?[2] Is there one commandment that represents the trunk of the tree? Can we identify one commandment in which all the others come together? Is there a way to comprehend God’s will in its entirety by embracing the tree near its root?

Rabbi Aqiba said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of Torah.”[3] The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement in his writings. In his letter to the Galatians we read, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4] And in Romans, Paul declares, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[5] The whole law summed up in a single commandment is the trunk of the tree from which all other branches emerge. Many Jewish and Christian teachers gave similar answers, identifying the demands love makes on us as the heart of God’s law. Other voices urged greater caution, insisting that all commandments were of equal importance and that any attempt to rank or summarize them was presumptuous. What did Jesus say?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[6]

Every last little detail of the law and the prophets matters, he insists, but he also calls his opponents hypocrites for giving to God a tithe of every herb from their kitchen garden, but neglecting the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.[7] Even the smallest stroke of a pen in the law matters, but woe to us if our attention to honoring God with our dill, mint and parsley keeps us from addressing injustice in our communities and the great hunger for mercy and faith.

When we ask Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he doesn’t name just one. There are two, and the two are one. They are different, and yet they belong inseparably together: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. The tree that is rooted in the heavens has the love of God pulsating through it. Love flows through the trunk and into every branch, into every twig and sprig and leaf: every commandment, even the smallest letter and stroke of a pen pulses and beats with that love. As creatures made in the image of God and called to live in covenant with God we are to know this love in our bones and live it every day in every aspect of our life.

How can I know this love in my bones? How do I love someone whom I can neither see nor touch? I trust the word, I trust the promise, I trust the One who made it. I come to know myself and every human being made in the image of God as God’s beloved. I come to know the world in its brokenness as embraced and held by God’s faithful, unsentimental, unrelenting, and vulnerable love. Loving God is our free response to the One who made us in love together with all things, who is redeeming us in love, and who is bringing all of life to completion in one community of love. Loving God involves our whole being – our wonder, our trust, our intellect, our will, our desire, our hands and feet, our neighbor – yes, our neighbor, because we cannot be who we are made to be without each other. Douglas Hare writes,

Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment to love God] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[8]

How do you love your Nazi neighbor? I have asked myself for years. How do you love angry white men with their arms raised, giving the Hitler salute, shouting ‘blood and soil’ in the streets of Charlottesville and Shelbyville? David Brooks wrote on Monday about a series of experiences over the past two weeks that left the impression that everybody on earth is having the same conversation: How do you engage with fanatics? There was the guy at a baseball game, unleashing a 10-minute profanity-strewn tirade at Brooks and his family. Then there were the students at the University of North Carolina at Asheville debating whether extremists should be allowed to speak on campus. Then he went to Madrid, where a number of Spaniards told him that the leaders of the Catalan independence movement were so radical there was no way to reason with them. Then he went to London where he was with pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit activists trying to have a civil conversation with one another. Everywhere he went, the scenes were so very similar. The only way to confront fanaticism, Brooks wrote — agreeing with an argument Stephen Carter made in a book twenty years ago — the only way to confront fanaticism is with love.[9]

It’s not a twenty-year-old argument; the commandment is much older. Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[10]

How do you love a fanatic? When you have a chance to talk to one, do it. Save your arguments, you won’t convince him. Listen to what he has to say, ask questions, hear him out, give him a sense that you heard him. On my way home from Shelbyville yesterday, the TED radio hour was on WPLN, and I was listening to a conversation Guy Raz was having with Celeste Headlee, a radio host and author from Georgia.

“We need to start actually talking to one another, not at one another,” she said.

And Raz asked, “At this point in our history, a lot of people have a hard time talking, and exchanging ideas and hearing other points of view. So where do you even start?”

And Headlee responded, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There have been people who were able to have productive, and respectful, and human, warm conversations with others whose views were absolutely repugnant to them.” And then she talked about Xernona Clayton and Calvin Craig. Xernona Clayton, a civil-rights activist, and Calvin Craig, a grand dragon in the KKK. They met, and over the course of months, they would just have conversations, and then he announced — he had a press conference and said, “I’m leaving the KKK; my mind has been changed by Xernona Clayton.”

Headlee said, “I’ve spoken with Xernona a few times, and she said, ‘I didn’t try to change his mind; I just listened to him.’”[11]

There were some two hundred Nazis in Shelbyville yesterday, which changes the conversation significantly. Hope and I and a good number of colleagues weren’t there to listen to their hateful chants and repugnant slogans. But we weren’t there to drown out their shouts with even louder, angrier ones either. And so we stood across the street from them and we sang.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine… Here in Shelbyville, I’m gonna let it shine… Murfreesboro too, I’m gonna let it shine… Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine…

We sang for two hours. Soon and very soon. Jesus loves the little children. O come, O come Emmanuel. Be thou my vision. I’ll fly away. We are one in the spirit. Marching to Zion. Victory in Jesus. Come thou fount of every blessing. And many more hymns and songs. We sang for two hours; we sang until they left. We sang of God’s vision of life amid the shouting; that’s how we loved our Nazi neighbors.

God loves the world, broken as it is by the power of sin, and it is God’s will that the world be whole. We grow up and live in this world, broken as it is by the power of sin. We are made in the image of God, but the world has a way of shaping us in its own distorted likeness and convincing us that this is who we are. And so we don’t know who we are, who we really are, until we know that we are loved and made for love of God and neighbor, every last one of us. Until we are all recreated in the image and likeness of Christ and nothing but the steady heartbeat of God’s love shapes our life together.


[1]Tanhuma 16b: “R. Simlai has said: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were spoken to Moses on Sinai; then David came and brought them to eleven [Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved (Psalm 15:2-5)]; Isaiah brought them to six [Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights (Isaiah 33:15)]; Micah brought them to three [What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)]; Amos brought them to two [Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba (Amos 5:4)]; Habakkuk brought them to one [Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)].”

[2] Sometimes the question was frivolous: Once a heathen came to R. Shammai and said to him, “I’ll become a convert if your can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai became angry and drove him off with a tool he had in his hand [I hope it was a pen and not a hatchet!]. He came to R. Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel said to him, “Whatever you dislike, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study [i.e., learn the commentary]” (b. Sabb. 31a).

[3] Kedoshim 4:12

[4] Galatians 5:14

[5] Romans 13:10

[6] Matthew 5:17-20

[7] See Matthew 23:23

[8] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation Commentaries, p. 260.

[9] David Brooks in the NYT Oct 23, 2017

[10] Matthew 5:43-44


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