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The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor

Image; Nina Strehl

On any given day, you can visit the website of a major news network and read through the headlines to find evidence of injustice in our world. I did this very thing a minute ago, and it occurred to me that, without clicking anywhere else, I could identify a “breaking” news story for every commandment broken: people lying, cheating, wanting what isn’t theirs to want, stealing what isn’t theirs to take, and more. The storm of injustice rages long and loud and relentlessly throughout our world. 

In the face of all that’s wrong, especially in the news cycle, we can feel powerless as individuals to make any real difference. We’re just ordinary people, living ordinary lives, away from the action, safe in our circles. We’re here. They’re there. We’re fine, they’re the problem. The pain and injustice is out there; how could we ever do anything to improve it?

But this feeling of powerlessness and separateness renders us useless for the kingdom of God. This is the crux of Mark Labberton’s book, The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor: Seeing Others Through the Eyes of Jesus, which was named the 2011 Christianity Today Book Award winner. 

“Systemic injustice, the absence of the rule of law, and the suffering of so many innocents at the hands of oppressors rely on the complicity and distraction of our ordinary hearts,” writes Labberton. In other words, when that sensation of powerlessness is allowed to dwell in our hearts, it erodes our ability to see, name, and act upon the injustice in our world. It makes us apathetic, neither hot nor cold, as the writer in Revelations says (Revelations 3:14-16 NIV).

We are the children of God. The Christ we follow came in power and promised that same power to his followers, to set captives free, to feed the hungry, to help the widow, to heal the broken, to shatter the control of the enemy. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus commanded his followers. “Be strong and courageous!” God declared to Joshua. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” Jesus told his disciples (John 16:33 NIV).

And yet we sit paralyzed. We watch a couple hours of news stories and then change the channel.

Changing Our Ordinary Hearts

Book Cover for The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor by Mark Labberton © 2010. Image Courtesy of Amazon Books. 

The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor says the problem begins inside us. Labberton writes:

“Our hearts don’t consciously will injustice. Nor do they deliberately withhold compassion. Nor is it that tales of injustice fail to grab and concern us. Yet our hearts are weak and confused. Our hearts are easily overwhelmed and self-protective. They are prone to be absorbed mostly with the immediacy of our own lives. Our hearts have the capacity to seek justice, but they are usually not calibrated to do so—at least not beyond concern for our inner circle. In a world of such hearts, virulent injustice thrives.”

Labberton stresses early on that his intentions are not to induce guilt, which “can come closer to killing our hearts than transforming them, and the latter is the only option that will do any good.” Nor does he think that there’s some direct and simple cause-and-effect relationship between every experience of injustice and every other human heart. There’s no “eat your peas because there’s starving children in Africa” sentiment here that “overloads individual responsibility so as to push any thinking person into the fetal position.” He’s also not arguing that changing the individual human heart or even a bunch of hearts will cut it, because we’re social creatures, and our individual selves can’t be separated from our social setting. The two are entwined, and to deal with one is to also deal with the other.

So what will you encounter in Labberton’s book? “What I will argue,” writes Labberton, “is that, in a complicated world of profound injustice, the crisis of the human heart is crucial to social transformation. Changing our world depends on changing our hearts: how we perceive, name and act in the world. The ways of the heart are reflected in the world daily in how we perceive (see and assess one another), how we name (frame and position one another), and how we act (engage or distance one another). These three are inseparable, simultaneous but distinguishable, and they are a potent force.”

Seeing, Naming, Acting: How the World Will Be Made New

Image: Pedro Dias

According to Labberton, the human heart must be made new in order for the world to be made new. There’s a lot of literature out there about transforming the individual human heart, but rarely are we guided in how this looks in our public lives. As a result, the private faith we practice as worship, Bible study, and prayer doesn’t translate into how we behave in public.

To put it simply, we don’t always practice what we preach.

Labberton is firm about this: “Loving God must involve loving our neighbor. Or we are not loving God. Read 1 John.” (No, really, go ahead and go read it.)

What unfolds after the introduction is a guide to self-examination and heart transformation. It is not light work. In fact, Labberton encourages the reader to read one chapter at a time over the course of several days before moving on to the next. Reading this book should be interactive and invitational; Labberton suggests praying for the Holy Spirit to prompt you with reminders and open your eyes to the ways that you see, name, and act in the world. There are reflective passages and questions to challenge you. In this way, the book is very practical. Labberton never just says, “love your neighbor,” he explains how to open your eyes and see clearer, how to root out the prejudices and ways you name people, and how to act as a result of this heart transformation. 

Of course, at the end of the book, your work won’t be done. God’s work bringing us to completion is lifelong, even until the day of Christ Jesus. But he promises to continue that work. 
We can be confident of it (Philippians 1:6 NIV).

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