I try, on the whole, to avoid the political in these blog posts — though, certainly, it must be acknowledged that an integrated person would seek to align one’s spiritual commitments with one’s politics. At the risk of moving in more of a political direction than I usually do in this space, however, I must admit that I was intrigued by what the Governor of New Jersey said in a speech at the Republican National Convention. He was famously quoted as recommending that his party choose “respect over love.” Reading a bit more of what he said, what he was talking about was his belief that politicians these days have a greater desire to be loved than to do the right thing, to be popular rather than to make the tough decisions. At one point, he said that politicians are “paralyzed by the desire to be loved.”
I can certainly sign on to the idea that doing what is popular rather than what is right is problematic. But while Governor Christie equates the terms “popularity” and “loved”, from a spiritual perspective those are rather different things. While I might not wish our politicians to govern according to their desire to be popular, I wish fervently that they would govern according to the principle of love. The difference, of course, is that they should not be concerned about being loved by their constituents but rather they should be concerned with doing on behalf of others that which love demands.
Americans have a tendency of thinking about love as an emotional state. We want to feel love for others and, most of all, we want to feel love from others. There is nothing wrong with that, per se, though our desire to feel love can become distorted and result in a kind of egocentricity that needs constantly to be fed (this, I think, is what the Governor was talking about). Within the biblical tradition, however, and in the Judeo-Christian tradition generally, love is seldom an emotional state. Rather, it is a call to a certain sort of action. When Jesus emphasized the teaching from the Hebrew Bible about the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not suggesting that we feel all squashy inside about those living next door. Rather, he was calling us to act with the best interests of our neighbor at heart. In other words, to act out of love for another.
The teaching was not radical in Jesus’ time — it had already been a part of the Hebrew tradition. What was radical was the way Jesus defined who the neighbor was, which he did famously in the parable of the good samaritan. In that story, Jesus made clear that the neighbor was the person in need, whether s/he was a part of your particular tribe or not. The demands of love did not simply require you to act in the best interests of “your people”, but in the best interests of those most in need.
It has, I think, become abundantly clear that this spiritual principle has become virtually absent from much of today’s political discourse. It has perhaps never been more clear the degree to which the institutions of our government are incapable of responding to those among us who are most in need and, indeed, are not particularly interested in doing so. And yet, so many of our politicians imagine that we are somehow a Christian nation whose government embodies Christian values. Christ would, I think, be very disappointed with our social choices – choices that cause the most vulnerable among us to be even further exposed as the gap between wealthy and poor grows ever larger, and as the nation’s wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.
So, I find that I agree with Governor Christie: our political system has become paralyzed by the desire of politicians to remain popular enough to be re-elected rather than make the hard choices. But if they ever do get around to making those hard choices, love needs to be their guiding principle: the kind of love embodied in the teaching of Jesus, and in so many of our religious traditions, that demands that what is best for all of us is what is best for those among us who have the greatest need.