What does it mean to love someone?
Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we’re going to love somebody that way, then we need to know how we love ourselves.
To love myself means that I want what’s best for me. I want to be the best version of me that I can possibly be. Because I love myself, I want to build on my strengths and I want to strengthen my weaknesses.
I want to face my mistakes, failures and insufficiencies so I can become a better person. I want to live up to my potential. I want to live out my ideals.
So, if I love my neighbors as I love myself, I want what’s best for them. I want them to be all they can be. I want them to succeed and even to thrive. I want them to be the best possible versions of themselves.
And I want all of that for them as much as I want it for me. I want the fullest life I can have and I want them to have the fullest lives they can have.
There’s a point at which this gets a little dicey, though.
It’s one thing for me to call myself out on my mistakes and failings and to challenge myself to be and do better.
It’s another thing for me to call my neighbors out on theirs and to challenge them. They may dare to think that it’s none of my business.
But living in community requires that we take a certain amount of responsibility for each other. To want the best for others requires that we try to help each other understand the ways in which we are not living up to our potential so we can try to do better.
With all of that in mind, how should we show our love for our country, for our communities of faith and for our families?
If we adopt the stance that loving them means believing they can do no wrong, we don’t really love them.
But if we want them to face up to their shortcomings so they can move toward being the best version of themselves they can be, then we really do love them.
To love ourselves means that we want what’s best for us. It also means that we’ll do what we need to do to achieve that goal.
To love our neighbors as we love ourselves means that we want what’s best for them. It also means that we’ll do what we need to do to help them achieve that goal.
Whether we stand or kneel, whether we resist or support, and whether we speak out or remain silent, our motivation matters.
It is possible for love, or something far less than love, to motivate someone to take the stand she or he takes. If someone’s heartfelt desire is to help the nation be the best nation it can be, then their motivation is sound.
It is always possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. It is even possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason. We also will do well to evaluate our own motivation before we go judging someone else’s.
As the Apostle Paul said, no matter what great things I do, if I don’t have love, “I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).
If we are motivated by love, then we do whatever we do because we want to help our neighbors realize and pursue their ideals so they can be the best Americans, the best people of faith or the best family members they can be.
That effort might involve the hard and painful work of pointing out how we don’t live up to our ideals.
How would things be different if love, defined as wanting the best for our neighbors just as we want it for ourselves, motivated our perspectives on, opinions of and actions toward our fellow Americans?
How would things be different if that same kind of love motivated our leaders? What might they do if they love the people they are elected to represent?
How would love respond to people’s need for quality affordable health care?
How would love respond to the epidemic of mass murder in our society?
How would love respond to the danger posed to people because of ongoing damage to the environment?
How would love respond to the injustice experienced by far too many people?
I challenge you to love your neighbors as you love yourself. I challenge you to want the best for them just as you want it for yourself.
I challenge our leaders to love the American people more than you love your egos, your political parties, your dogmas, your ability to stay in office and your corporate benefactors.
If our leaders don’t try to work together to do what is best for us and what will give us greater freedom to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then they don’t love us. And next election, we should replace them with people who do.
Do it because you love yourself. Do it because you love your neighbors as you love yourself.
Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, On the Jericho Road, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ruffinmichael.