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Lacking Moral Imagination to Care for Others: Part 2

The vision of humanity is inherently myopic.

We are barely able to see the needs of our neighbor in the house, apartment or even cubicle beside us, let alone to recognize the needs of our neighbor across borders. Yet that is precisely what Christ calls us to do.

Humanity’s natural proclivity is to act, and increasingly so at the collective level, primarily in its own self-interest.

However, despite our innate failings, there is a means by which this propensity may be transcended.

“In religion,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, in his classic discourse, “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” “all the higher moral obligations, which are lost in abstractions on the historic level, are felt as obligations toward the supreme person.”

“Thus,” he continued, “both the personality and the holiness of God provide the religious man with a reinforcement of his moral will and a restraint upon his will to power.”

Niebuhr went on to highlight another significant element found in the teachings of Jesus – what he calls “the paradox of Christ.”

This is summed up in the Christological axiom in Matthew 10:39, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

It is in embracing this paradox that “the religious tension which drives toward asceticism is resolved by condemning self-seeking as a goal of life, but allowing self-realization as a byproduct of self-abnegation.”

Theologian Miroslav Volf referred to this process in his book, “Exclusion and Embrace,” as a “de-centering” of self that must precede a “re-centering” on Christ.

“It is no longer I who live,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). In another paradox of the Gospel, it is this recentering on Christ that further orients us to the other.

However, Niebuhr conceded that the social implications of our religious beliefs are often lost when we fall into the pitfall of over absolutizing our obligation to Christ such that the other is removed from the equation, and over individualizing the outworkings of our faith such that it has no communal repercussions.

This leaves an empty shell of religiosity that is no better than a mere identifier of group belonging – another measure by which to distinguish “us” from “them.”

Yet, at its best, this religious imagination can engender a transcendent concept of love across racial, economic and sectarian boundaries that consider the needs of the other as of equal importance to one’s own.

In a stunning conclusion, Niebuhr reflected that, “in part the religious ideal of love is fed and supported by viewing the soul of the fellowman from the absolute and transcendent perspective. Your neighbor is a son of God, and God may be served by serving him. ‘What ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done unto me,’ said Jesus.”

“It is this religious insight,” he continued, “flowing from the capacity of the religious imagination to view the immediate and the imperfect from the perspective of the absolute and the transcendent, which prompted St. Francis to kiss the leper and to trust the robber, which persuaded Paul that ‘in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free.'”

Yet Niebuhr also observed that this “moral and social imagination” nurtured through religion is rarely able to overcome “the imagination which makes one’s own nation the peculiar instrument of transcendent and divine purposes.”

The patriot is as true a worshipper as any other, and he will as surely conform his religious dispositions to his nationalist loyalties as he will place his political preconceptions under the sovereignty of God.

Tragically, what we are witnessing in the world today is something much more sinister than merely misguided patriotism.

Somewhere along the way, public discourse went into a downward spiral from selfish to scapegoating, and public action deteriorated from marginalization to exclusion and violence.

To echo the profound insights of both Volf and Niehbuhr, the tendency for hateful nativist policy and shifting blame toward the other is not a Lebanese problem.

Nor, even in light of the shock and dismay following the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, is it an American problem.

Neither does the rise in xenophobic violence in the United Kingdom following Brexit make it a British problem, or the revival of neo-Nazism in Germany make it a German problem.

This is a human problem, and it is one that we must expose and repent of before we fall prey to our own primal inclinations.

What we so often lack is a moral and social imagination that can envision the needs of the other and bring our self-interest and will to power in submission to a holy and sovereign God.

What I am proposing is that before we place blame, before we engage in political discussion, before we cast the ballot, that we take a moment to pause and reflect. Perhaps a moment to decenter from self and to recenter on Christ.

A moment to consider: who is the other in our current reality? What does life look like when viewed through their eyes? How can we better serve them, placing their well-being equal to or even above our own?

How different would the world be if we fully believed the words of Christ and truly loved our neighbor as we love ourselves?

Suzie Lahoud serves with a Lebanese, faith-based nongovernmental organization that has been providing relief assistance in response to the Syrian crisis since 2011. She is also currently enrolled in the Institute of Middle East Studies’ master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies program. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.