There are many challenging passages in the Bible but one line that puzzled me for a very long time was 1 John 3:15.
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer… 1 John 3:15 ESV
In context John was talking about Christian identity, teaching that members of God’s family are known by their love for one another. That is simple enough to understand. The comparison of someone who hates his fellow brother in Christ to a murderer is quite striking. In fact he compares such an individual to Cain, the first murderer in the biblical record. Cain was used in Jewish writings as the stereotypical sinner, murderer and child of Satan. However the shocking nature of the comparison is I think much deeper than just metaphor or hyperbole. Perhaps, what is most unnerving is what it says about human nature, about what is really in our hearts. Murder is a very serious offence but when we detest someone we hardly consider ourselves in the same class as a cold-blooded criminal. This penetrating analysis of our hearts makes a startling claim about us, that we are equally capable of horrendous things. As I wondered more and more about what was being said about human nature I came across something that helped me better appreciate it.
About a year or two ago, I watched the acclaimed biopic starring Bradley Cooper, American Sniper. It follows the career of elite Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who holds the record for most kills in American military history. This dark and moving story got me interested in the man the movie is based on so I checked out some interviews of his on YouTube. There is a scene early on in the movie where he shoots a mother and her child who were carrying some kind of bomb and trying it to launch it against American troops. It was a very difficult scene to watch. An interviewer brought up that incident and asked Kyle how he was able to do that. His response was very revealing. He said that they are taught not to see them as people as but as the enemy. Recently, I read Who Is This Man? by John Ortberg and he raised a similar point which reminded me of the interview as he discussed Jesus influence on ethics. He observed that people tend to mistreat people who do belong to the same group as them. In order to do that you need to dehumanize them. Soldiers are taught not to see the enemy combatant as someone like them, a person with friends, families, aspirations, disappointments, and as sincere a belief as themselves in what they are fighting for. They are not people. They have to be stripped of their personal stories. There is no room for empathy. This is the same thing that happens when one group of people oppress another. They may see them as human but not as human as they are. In the words of the great satirist George Orwell, “All animals are created equal but some are more equal than others.”
Humans are social creatures and as such we define ourselves by the group we are in. We tend to think the group we belong to is the best or at least all the others are worse than us. We therefore think it is wise to treat others in the group the same way we want them to treat us. The Golden Rule is a common sense approach to societal relations. Practically every society in the world has it in one form or another. Jesus was not the first to come up with it. The famous Rabbi Hillel who came before Jesus said reportedly said something similar except that he stated it in the negative. Perhaps, it is such moral values which are common across human societies that make people think as the Beetles famously sang, “all we need is love.” The human capacity to love is universal but I certainly do not think that it is enough.
When you really consider the Golden Rule on its own, it does not shine so bright. Jesus pointed out people love those who love them. This is quite unremarkable because in a group it serves your own interests to treat others well. Once you do not consider a person as your social peer, it means they are incapable of treating you the way you want to be treated. You therefore do treat them the same way that you treat yourself. So even within a group or a society some people are treated better than others because of their social rank generating all the inequalities of class politics. There is an even more cynical flaw with the Golden Rule. If a person treats you unfairly it then it means you are obligated to pay them back. This ethic of reciprocity works both ways. When you take the not-so-Golden-Rule, it applies to those who you think are as human as you are and no one else, downgrading everyone else and providing a socially acceptable avenue for seeking vengeance against your sub-human opponents. Now if this is really the true nature of social ethics, what makes Jesus’ own statement of this rule so special?
Jesus was not some wise quirky moral teacher who went about from village to village with a stash of memorable aphorisms and tales to dole out and nothing more. If not anything he was a prophet which means his words and actions had to be taken together to perceive the larger message. As such his statement of the Golden Rule should be interpreted within the context of his entire public career.
When Jesus spoke about how people should be treated, the “others” or your “neighbour” was not the person you identified with. It was consistently the person you disliked and opposed. For example when he famously said the greatest commandment was to love your neighbour as yourself, someone asked who his neighbour was. Jesus proceeded to tell a story where a Samaritan, their sworn enemy, was their neighbour. He did not only talk about it. He lived out his parables. He associated with people in the lowest rungs of society or of public opinion. His treatment of others extended way beyond any within his social class. In fact he completely ignored class or group distinctions all together. We treat others the way we want to be treated because we see them as human as we are. Jesus took the initiative and went beyond his social group and humanized everyone. The point of the parable of the Good Samaritan was not to point out who your neighbour is. It is to show what it truly means to be neighbourly by according every single person human dignity without exception.
What was unique about Jesus’ statement of the Golden Rule is that it explicitly included a person’s enemies. The humanizing love Jesus taught and lived was a moral innovation which climaxed in the cross where he prayed for those murdering him, asking the almighty God to forgive them. The seriousness of the cross should alert us to the fact it was not the diluted, low grade, modern understanding of love called tolerance that Jesus preached. No one would go to that extent for the sake of tolerance. His truly humanizing love exposes the true nature of human hearts. We are not inherently good people who happen to do bad things on the occasion. We are bad people who do good things to those who love us or can benefit us. The sort of unlimited unconditional love we so crave is precisely what we do not give out. The irony is when we do not dignify people who really are as human as we are, we dishonour our own selves in the process (James 3:9.)
What the apostle John said which I quoted earlier is a harrowing, real time image of the human heart without the kind of love Jesus has. Jesus being human as the rest of us we must ask, what motivated him to act in that way? As I said he was a prophet, but more than that, he was God in the flesh. In other words he was the embodiment of the Creator’s love for his creation. The incarnation is about God becoming truly human out of his inexhaustible love for us. This is why the love of Jesus steps into our condition and humanises us. This is so we can truly be the children of our heavenly Father.
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, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48 ESV