Loving your neighbor as yourself
Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson
May 5, 2021
The message of loving your neighbor as yourself is one that I was taught as a child. However, understanding the depth of that teaching took decades. This is not a catchphrase but a teaching that has the capacity to transform lives. This transformation is desperately needed today.
As an African American minister, I struggle with feelings of anger and outrage at the continued senseless acts of violence perpetrated on my brothers and sisters with skin like mine. From an early age, I knew that I was different because of the skin I am in. The skin I am in has shaped who I am as well as how people who look differently treat me. I am not angry because of the skin I am in; I am angry because such a trivial thing continues to plague a society far removed from the Stone Age. It seems that while our brains have developed, compared to our ancestors from the Stone Age, our capacity to love, and live as a civilized society, has not.
In an interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning, country singer Mickey Guyton shared her struggle of being a black country singer. Her song, “Black Like Me” was released in 2020 and she was nominated for a Grammy for best solo performance. Her song chronicles her struggle as a black child, and it indicates that as an adult “nothing has changed.” Nothing has changed. Over the past century, nothing has changed.
This fact continues to be reinforced as I watched the murder trial of George Floyd unfold. While watching the trial another heart-wrenching fatality broke through the mesmerizing haze of the court proceedings. Yet another unarmed black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a 26-year veteran of the Brooklyn Center Minnesota police department. Daunte Wright was shot after being stopped for driving with expired plates.
When an officer kills a pedestrian, that officer instantly becomes judge and jury, convicting and sentencing an individual. This sentence is one that has left individuals severely injured or dead. The excessive use of force and shooting by armed police on unarmed people of color amount to murder. James Cone would term them modern-day lynchings. We may not want to associate this distasteful, degrading, demonically demoralizing act of terror with current events, however, placed in context, how can we not? How can we not view the continued genocide of unarmed black men and women in the same light as lynchings that took place in this country regularly and legally?
While we may be able to legislate reform, mandate equitable policies, and reframe policing, this will still leave much work to do. The model of change that helps me to continue to embrace hope in a sea of darkness is the model of love. The concept of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is where not only reform happens, but transformation occurs.
Currently, there is a demand for police reform to work on these all-too-common acts of violence. In 2014, President Barack Obama created The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force created by President Obama was an earnest attempt to develop a national standard for reporting and dealing with shootings, after Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri.
In 2016, in a Time magazine article, Maya Rhodan reported, “According to a one-year update by the Task Force, at least nine states and municipalities have taken significant steps to implement their recommendations and law enforcement agencies in every state have in some way grappled with reform. In May 2016, 15 police departments signed on to join the ‘Advancing 21st Century Policing Initiative.’ However, those successes are a drop in the bucket for the task force considering there are 18,000 police departments in the United States.” Five years later, many states are only now passing police reform bills in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
While we may be able to legislate reform, mandate equitable policies, and reframe policing, this will still leave much work to do. While I struggle emotionally with what continues to happen to brothers and sisters with skin like mine, I am aware that the work that needs to be done will require a change. Viewing police reform in isolation gives a myopic view of a larger malady. The American Psychology Association has studied what they think will work to reduce police brutality. These studies are great steppingstones in the right direction. However, they only address symptoms of a deeper disease. The deeper disease is a lack of love. The model of change that helps me to continue to embrace hope in a sea of darkness is the model of love. The concept of loving one’s neighbor as oneself is where not only reform happens, but transformation occurs.
While the chant for justice rises, transformation is what will change hearts. When hearts change, actions and behavior follow. The only thing powerful enough to change hearts is love. This love that is required is not sentimental. Love that is required is not an emotional connection. It is a love that values life regardless of ethnicity, economics, or education. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is where transformation happens, and change takes root. This can happen when a premium for all human life is held as the highest value in society.
When love for human life is held as the highest value in a society, society works to protect it at all costs. This means nothing is done to negate or jeopardize life in general. In addition, respect is a trait that has to be inherent in this aspect of love for human life. There needs to be respect for one another as well as respecting differences. When love is embraced with a healthy level of respect, we can then see one another as brothers and sisters. With this type of shift, we will truly be our brothers’ keeper and skin color will no longer be the standard by which individuals are treated. This type of transformation happens when all of society embraces the concept of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.