Don’t Justify Your Selfishness in Jesus’ Name (Bonus: Two Cartoons!)

Don’t Justify Your Selfishness in Jesus’ Name (Bonus: Two Cartoons!) October 3, 2011

Two pictures have been independently circulating on Facebook. Presented together they serve as both an interesting juxtaposition and as commentary on one another. To be fair, the first picture is too sweepingly dismissive of all conservatives as being of one simplistic type. Nevertheless, Galbraith, a well-known economist who died a few years ago, does speak an element of prophetic truth here given the resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness among many prominent conservatives. The most bizarre aspect from my perspective is that many of these Ayn Rand toting conservatives are regular church attenders who experience no cognitive dissonance between their politics of selfishness and the way of Jesus. A word of caution: this critique should not be read as an implicit endorsement of the Democrat Party, which has its own issues of (among others) being beholden to corporate interests.

The second picture is more ironic, as one would expect from comedic satirist Stephen Colbert:

Selfishness is natural. We are all born as egocentric infants, but the way of Jesus calls us to expand our love of self to include the love of God and neighbor. Indeed, Jesus teaches that The Second Greatest Commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 / Matthew 22:39-40 and parallels). The philosopher Beatrice Bruteau, in her book The Holy Thursday Revolution, writes that we tragically misunderstand Jesus’ Second Greatest Commandment (and hence misread Jesus’ life and teachings overall) if fail to see that Jesus is in many ways being quite literal in his emphasis on the importance of learning to love your neighbor as yourself. She writes:

If we cannot love our neighbor as ourself, it is because we do not perceive our neighbor as ourself. We perceive the neighbor as precisely not ourself, but as a potential threat (or potential aid) to ourself…. The Holy Thursday Revolution undertakes to change our perceptions so that it will become possible for us fully to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The “Holy Thursday Revolution” is when, after washing his disciples’ feet (a profoundly nonhierarchical and unselfish act), Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Thus, rightly understood, the way of Jesus calls us toward a life of ever-expanding concentric circles of inclusion: from only worrying about yourself and what you will eat and drink (Matthew 6:25) to a compassion for all people, friends or enemies (Matthew 5:44). Bruteau’s book challenges us to see that authentically living the way of Jesus will change both our self and our worldview such that we increasingly begin to experience ourself as deeply in connection — or, better, in communion — with all people, even all Creation. Hence, we find ourselves truly able to practice The Second Greatest Commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Lest we neglect what Jesus called The Greatest and First Commandment “to love God” (Deuteronomy 6:5 / Matthew 22:37-38), perhaps here we can also glimpse the spiritual truth in a teaching from the 12th-century French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, in his essay “On Loving God,” talked about the stages we move through as we practice Jesus’ Greatest Commandment.

At first, as we have seen, we love ourselves for our own sake. In Bernard’s language, this infantile stage is “the first degree” of loving God. Loving ourselves is somewhat paradoxically still the love of God because God is in, with, and beyond all things. As Augustine wrote, “God is closer to us that we are to ourselves” (“interior intimo meo et superior summo meo,” Confessions 3.6.11).

As we (hopefully) mature, we begin to love God for our sake, for what God can do for us. Mystics call this stage “purgation.”

If we continue to grow, we learn to love God for God’s own sake. In the Christian contemplative tradition this stage emerges from experiences of “Illumination.”

Many too often assume this level is the highest achievement, but Bernard spoke of an even higher point in which we love ourselves for God’s sake. The mystics call this stage “Union.” The transformation of our worldview at this level (what some speak of as nondual perception) is what Bruteau means when she says that, “The Holy Thursday Revolution undertakes to change our perceptions so that it will become possible for us fully to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

There is so much more to life, God, the universe, and Christianity than is contained in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but paradoxically Rand’s promotion of the “love of self” is — if rightly, expansively, and evermore-inclusively understood — a path of profound transformation in line with the way of Jesus. However, many notions of selfishness, as critiqued in the two cartoons above, are childish, immature, and are impoverishing our nation’s political discourse. I can understand (although I disagree) justifying one’s selfishness based on Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism,” but don’t justify your selfishness in Jesus’ name.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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