I was catching up on my backlog of On Being podcasts and came across a fascinating discussion with writer Alain de Botton. de Botton is an atheist, but provided a description of the idea of love of fellow citizen (in my words, “neighbor”) that was insightful to me.
MR. DE BOTTON: …I think you’re onto something huge and rather counterintuitive because we associate the word “love” with private life. We don’t associate it with life in the republic, with civil society.
But I think that a functioning society requires two things that, again, just don’t sound very normal, but they require love and politeness. And by “love” I mean a capacity to enter imaginatively into the minds of people with whom you don’t immediately agree, and to look for the more charitable explanations for behavior which doesn’t appeal to you and which could seem plain wrong, not just to chuck them immediately in prison or to hold them up in front of a law court but to…
MS. TIPPETT: Or just tell them how stupid they are, right?
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. Exactly. We’re permanently — all sides are attempting to show how stupid every other side is. And the other thing, of course, is politeness, which is an attempt not necessarily to say everything, to understand that there is a role for private feelings, which if they were to emerge, would do damage to everyone concerned. But we’ve got this culture of kind of self-disclosure. And as I say, it spills out into politics as well. The same dynamic goes on of, like, “If I’m not telling you exactly what I think, then I may develop a twitch or an illness from not expunging my feelings.” To which I would say, “No, you’re not. You’re preserving the peace and the good nature of the republic, and it’s absolutely what you should be doing.”
I really like this definition of love of neighbor that way – to work to understand them by giving them the benefit of the doubt, to look for the most charitable explanation for their position. We as Christians could take that idea to heart.