Can you teach me the whole Bible in one sentence? That’s the question put before Jesus. “Which commandment of the law is the greatest?” (Mk. 12:28)
In Jesus’ day, this was a typical question. The Jews tell a story about a man who came to the famous Rabbi Hillel and said, “I will become your disciple if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary.”
The greatest commandment is the heart of the commandments. If you live that commandment, you’ll live all the commandments. Jesus combined two commandments into one inseparable command: “Love God with all your heart . . . . and love your neighbor.” The greatest challenge of this commandment is to know who my neighbor is. What gets in your way of seeing someone as your neighbor?
One obstacle to seeing another person as my neighbor is tribalism. Let me give you an example using sports. I have a good friend from Wisconsin named John McHugh. Now John is an avid fan of the Green Bay Packers. He is one of those guys you might see jumping up and down and screaming at the TV as he watches his team.
John’s behavior seemed odd because my family did not watch much football. At first, I thought that maybe cheese-heads were a little crazy in how they reacted to a football game. However, I have come to realize that lots of people manifest a kind of tribalism for their favorite team. If the referee makes a call against their team, they are skewed in their assessment of the penalty call. It’s almost always the other team’s fault. The players on their team can do nothing wrong.
Recently a writer said that “Tribalism describes the human instinct to want to belong to a group of people who are like you. …… in the sense of very strong group identification. The kind of group identification where your identity is so bound up with it that you will basically defend the group and cling to the group no matter what and you start to see everything through that group’s lens. . . . once you connect with a tribe in a certain way, then you actually start to interpret facts and studies and statistics to fit your tribe’s world view.” (Political Tribes by Amy Chua) Everything else is “fake news.”
On the one hand, a certain level of tribalism is good. People need to identify strongly with a group. That group or tribe defends us through thick and thin; they will be there no matter what. However, tribalism can blind me to my neighbor. Tribalism run wild will prevent me from seeing the good in the other group.
For example, years ago Catholics and Protestants had an unhealthy tribalism that prevented us from seeing each other as neighbors. It prevented us from seeing the good at work in the other person. When tribalism runs rampant, then it fuels incidents like the killing of eleven people in a Jewish synagogue. It incites Muslim extremism, and conversely, tribalism causes others to say that all Muslims are extremists.
Democrats and Republicans have become much too tribal. Neither party is able to acknowledge that anything good is done by the other side. They are blind to the other as a neighbor. When tribalism runs rampant, then you have a Democratic party that is so strident in its support of abortion that some party members want to cleanse their party of anyone who defends the unborn. Meanwhile, members of the Republican party allow its leaders to spread false information about immigrants so that they are maligned and seen not as real people in dire circumstances, but as the worst criminals. As a result, neither party respects human beings as our neighbors. Neither can claim to be pro-life. In both parties, tribalism has taken control. They defend their party and cling to it no matter what, and they see everything through their own party’s lens.
One of the saddest manifestations of tribalism has been in the Catholic church where bishops protected priests who abused minors. They showed favoritism to clergy – to their tribal leaders, but shunned survivors of sexual abuse. They abandoned the little ones.
I could go on and on with examples of tribalism. Virtually all of us are prone to it. It blinds us to our neighbor. It is a major obstacle in keeping the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So what is the way beyond tribalism?
First, to remember how the commandment was broadened in the Bible. It first appears in the book of Leviticus, where God says to the Hebrews, “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) Here one’s neighbor is a fellow Hebrew, but a five verses later that changes. God says, “If you have aliens [‘resident foreigners’] in your country, you will not molest them. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; You shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
An ‘alien’ (Hebrew = ger) is a man who, either alone or with his family, leaves his village and tribe, because of war, famine or pestilence, and seeks shelter elsewhere, where he does not enjoy the rights of a citizen. An ‘alien’ was an immigrant without rights.
Thus, my neighbor is not merely the members of my tribe. God commanded the Hebrews to treat non-citizen foreigners as neighbors. Basically God said to them, “Remember that you were aliens and that I rescued you when you were in dire straits. Now, you must treat others in the same way…. according to my mercy toward you.”
Already in the Old Testament, the command to “love your neighbor” was extended to foreigners living among them. However Jesus broadened the commandment. He extended it to enemies, as he said: “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, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matt. 5:43-45)
Jesus put that into practice when he washed the feet of his disciples. Immediately, after washing their feet he said that Judas would betray him. Then he said to them, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn. 13:34) Next, he announced that Peter would deny him three times. So his command to “Love one another as I have loved you” was sandwiched between Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial.
Just before he died Jesus commanded his disciples to love backstabbers and unfaithful friends with the love of the cross. “Love your neighbor” means to defend immigrants, the protect the unborn and forgive your enemies. It means to love beyond tribalism.
When you vote this week, try to identify candidates who have the wisdom to see beyond tribalism and the courage to stand against it. Look for people who will not be blinded by a party lens. Seek leaders who have the inner freedom to support the good in the other party.
Above all, vote for people who have shown by their words and actions that our neighbor is much more than those who belong to my tribe, or who are native-born. As we approach the Eucharist today, let’s remember how Jesus washed the feet of his betrayer, then said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”