… and your neighbor as yourself

I’m often reluctant to discuss religion and politics here, or topics related to those areas. The reasons for this are many and carefully considered. I don’t say that they are necessarily good reasons, but carefully considered anyway. So when I break that rule, it’s generally because of things that I’ve been thinking about a great deal, and need to write about to work out some details.

Feel free to give it a pass if you so choose.

Still here? Ok, good.

I’ve been reading a number of things lately. Anna Karenina. Wendell Berry. David James Duncan. A number of things have been driving me towards the same line of thought. The David James Duncan essay in Citizen’s Dissent solidified some of it.

It’s the notion of loving your neighbor as yourself, and what that actually looks like in the real world.

At the same time, partially because of the news, and partially because of these readings, I’ve been pondering who I can, in good conscience, vote for to be the next president of the United States of America.

These things are all interrelated, and you should not anticipate that I will expound on them all in this brief missive.

My daughter keeps asking me who I’m going to vote for. I’m not able to give her a straight answer. I’m concerned that people who think that it’s an easy question are burying their heads in one sand bank or another. Or maybe they have a clearer vision than I do. I just don’t know. I find it a very difficult question.

Let’s start with this quote from David James Duncan:

To be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, is to immerse oneself in unstinting fiction-making. Christ’s words “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” to cite a famously ignored example, demands an arduous imaginative act. This deceptively simple line orders me, as I look at you, to imagine that I am seing not you, but me, and then to treat this imaginative me, alias you, as if you are me. And for how long? Till the day I die! Christ orders anyone who’s serious about him to commit the “Neighbor = Me” fiction until they forget for good which of the two of themselves to cheat in a business deal or abandon in a crisis or smart-bomb in a war — at which point their imaginative act, their fiction-making, will have turned Christ’s bizarre words into a reality and they’ll be saying with Mother Teresa, “I see Christ in every woman and man.”

For context, please understand how the word “fiction” is used. The entire essay focuses on the difference between fiction and lies. Fiction is a constructive creative act of truth. You really must read the essay to get the full force of that, and I won’t attempt to do that all here. But fiction here does not mean lies.

What does this have to do with the presidential election? That is wrapped up in the question “who then is my neighbor”, and also in Anna Karenina.

I hate everyone in Anna Karenina. They are all self-centered jerks. Except Levin. He’s not very bright, but I really like him. And one day he discovered that “his peasants” are real people, not some other species somewhere “between man and ape.” This changes his entire world view. And, of course, makes things a lot more complicated for him.

Because if we think that the other guy hurts as we do, we can’t continue to act towards him in the same way. It’s much more convenient to think that foreigners are not like us. It makes matters of foreign policy so much easier.

Or, to quote Dickens:

… think of other people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

I think I might have gotten sidetracked again. The presidential election. I don’t like any of my options. Mr. Bush has committed to a course of action whereby we have killed many, many of our neighbors. How many? Does it matter? Go read Brothers Karamazov, and pay particular attention to the discussion of paradise based on the suffering of a single child. Was it wrong for us to attack Iraq? I have absolutely no idea. I simply can’t say. However I do know that we are not, as Mr. Bush claims, Good in a fight against Evil. We are fellow-passengers to the grave, committing different kinds of evil against one another.

Mr. Kerry, on the other hand, has as his greatest strength that he is not Mr. Bush. That’s precious little to go on. Maybe it’s enough for some people, and I fear that I have been rather harsh on those people in the recent past. I have greater sympathy towards them now.

Mr. Badnarik seems my best option at the moment. Sure, the Libertarians are a little looney. But so was my hero John Adams, in many of the same ways. But the Libertarians’ views on foreign policy and foreign aid are troubling, to say the least.

In the end, I must love my neighbor, but with the whole world as my neighbor, I must made distinctions between one neighbor and another. These turn out to be very difficult and interrelated problems. If I love this neighbor, I must neglect that one. If I feed this one, that one must starve. If I clothe this one, that one will remain naked. Indeed, if we look a the world as our own personal problem, outside of the greater community (whether that be the church, the nation, the world, or something else) one must either be overwhelmed, or choose to selectively ignore the problem.

Obviously, in my case, the solution is to quit reading stuff like this, and slip back into my comfortable self-centered world.