Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Lord, who is my neighbor?"

On this site, we take the perspective of the Catholic Church. We don't deny that there are other perspectives to take. We simply try to articulate what the Catholic Church teaches on the matter of torture, and to discuss why she teaches as she does.

As with every other matter, the Church's teaching on torture is based on the commandment of our Lord, Jesus Christ. My favorite statement of the command is in the Gospel according to St. John: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."

But today, as I'm reading through our comments, I keep thinking of the scene in the Gospel according to St. Luke in which the young student of the law questioned our Lord. Jesus turned the question back on him, and he replied ... well, I'll let the text speak for itself:
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?"

He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself."

He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?"

He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy."

Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

We know the story so well that we tend to forget what it says. When asked for an example of the love which he commands us, our Lord gives us a story of enemies. When asked to define "neighbor," Jesus does not tell us who we have to treat well, but rather what we have to do to be worthy of the title "neighbor": we must treat others with mercy.

It saddens me that we are so bound by fear - and remember, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4.18) - that we cannot ask how we can love our enemies. Rather than asking, how far can we go in torturing terrorists, why don't we ask, What does it mean to love terrorists?

It obviously does not mean to agree with them, or to hand our lives or our country over to them. But I think it does mean that we recognize that they are people, just as we are.

I think it means that, when we capture them on a battlefield or in the act of committing a crime, we look for what they are trying to accomplish and what they want. This is not so that we can just give them whatever they want; but rather so that we can understand the object of their attacks on us, and take action ourselves either to stop those attacks or to defend ourselves more effectively.

I think it means actually entering into relationship with them, as individuals and as members of a culture, a people. In other words, seeing them as something more than simply a threat.

This will take time. It will mean that we will have to look at the world through a different lens than we're used to. It will mean that we will have to accept that we may be wrong in some places.

But it will also mean that we will actually move toward genuine peace. It will mean that the security we gain is true and lasting security. It will mean that we can grow in trust, instead of only growing in fear.


  1. Robert, this is a beautiful post. In that Gospel story, it was the priest and the Levite who passed by, more worried about themselves, who were hung up on just what it meant to "love" one's neighbor--did that really mean stopping along a dangerous road at risk of great personal danger to oneself? etc. A great reminder.

  2. Jesus didn't say 'go comfort the robber, He said go comfort the victim'

    .talk about a twisting of the Gospel.

  3. Jasper,

    "But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you" Matthew 5:44

  4. @jasper -

    No, the robber is not in need of comfort or healing. Rather the robber is in need of a call to repentance.

    But both are actions of love, as Leo reminds us.

  5. We are at war. You can love your enemy, but that does not mean you open your door, put your wife and children out and while they are sawing their heads off sing songs of love.

    Pope John Paul II was shot, he visited the nut job in the jail and forgave him. He left him in jail and did not say he should now be allowed to run free. As Pope and as the victim, I am certain that he could have used his power to get the man let free. You seem to feel that loving the person means that there are not consequences for actions or that we do not have the right and obligation to defend ourselves. These nutjobs are using their so called religion to kill innocent people. Our government by terms of the constitution has the obligation to defend us. You are putting others at risk by your actions and frankly, if you want to push for them to slaughter your family, have at it. I want the government to do its job and defend me. They take billions in taxes to build a defense and intelligence community. Love has a hard time stopping evil which is why we do have a defense and intelligence community. If we do not, we will be as the Christians being led to the lions den of our evil enemies. Moses held up his arms so that God would continue to help the Israelies to slaughter their enemies. God gave out musical instruments such as the trumpet to knock down the walls of Jericho so the people in side could be killed. Romans continued to crucify people and I see nothing in the bible about Jesus protesting the use of beating and torture. They were part of the world of caesar as was the later slaughter of christians. However, we did seem to use burning at the stake and the crusades.

    Mark Shea condemns our heroes of WWII saying they are the same as Osama Bin Laden. You guys are really misguided in your beliefs about the Church teaching and also about the use of force during war.

  6. You guys are really misguided in your beliefs about the Church teaching and also about the use of force during war.


    An Ecumenical Council of the Church has taught that firebombing and nuking cities "merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation":

    "[T]his most holy synod makes its own the condemnations of total war already pronounced by recent popes, and issues the following declaration.

    "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation." Gaudium et spes, 80

  7. "You seem to feel that loving the person means that there are not consequences for actions or that we do not have the right and obligation to defend ourselves."


    I am not a pascifist. I am not saying we do not have the right to defend ourselves. What I am saying is we should not torture people or deliberately take the lives of innocents. Your mischaracterization of all opponents of torture as pascifists is silly.

  8. @Greta -

    Please read my entire post. I am not saying that we cannot (or even should not) fight. I completely agree that the government has the obligation to protect our nation, by military force if necessary. I am simply saying that we need to fight fair.

    Also, you'll recall that the Christians fed to the lions are the very ones we regard as heroes, as saints, because they gave up their lives rather than betray their principles.

    In other words, while the government has the obligation to protect us by force, individual citizens retain the right to choose non-resistance in their own cases. This is not an evil choice, and is potentially the most noble choice a person can make.

    So, while it's entirely proper to argue that pacifism is not the right strategy for our current situation, please do not use "pacifist" as a pejorative.