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When Jesus is asked who counts as a neighbor, he answers with the famous story of the Good Samaritan. His shocking message is not only that Jews and Samaritans are neighbors and ought to love each other, but also that the disreputable Samaritans may in fact be the more loving ones on occasion. Loving our neighbors means prioritizing the wellbeing of others over our own interests, regardless of the social gap between us.
This has never been an easy commandment for Christians to obey, but it seems harder than ever in our world of social media, political polarization, global capitalism, militarized borders, and religious pluralism. How do we love our neighbors when they live in different online echo chambers? How do we love our neighbors when faceless organizations have the power to upend millions of people’s lives? How do we love our neighbors when they live in villages and towns and cities we’ve never even heard of?
We need all the human and divine help we can get to answer these questions. While there is certainly much wisdom in the Reformed tradition, we can’t afford to ignore the experience and knowledge of the entire body of Christ. We must seek common ground across theological divides, and one valuable source of guidance is Pope Francis’s recent encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti.
Francis’s previous encyclical, Laudato Si’, was welcomed by the CRC’s former executive director for its help in confronting the “moral travesty of climate change.” Fratelli Tutti takes on different travesties—social division, inequality, and oppression—and is equally worthy of our attention. In the letter, Francis draws on Scripture, church tradition, and Latin American liberation theology to explore what love requires of us today.
Francis’s reflections begin with the Good Samaritan. In this parable, Francis writes, Jesus “asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbor, but rather that we ourselves become neighbors to all” (80). There is no one who is not our neighbor, and in today’s interconnected world, that leaves us with the daunting task of loving every person on the planet.
To meet this seemingly impossible calling, we need to develop a “fraternal love” that “transcends the barriers of geography and distance”—what liberation theologians call “solidarity” (1). Solidarity means “thinking and acting in terms of community” (116). That is, while individual acts of generosity are important, we must also work to build cultures, communities, and societies that treat the vulnerable with compassion. In Francis’s words, “It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering” (186). Just as we love our immediate neighbors by treating them with mercy and generosity, we must love all of humanity by cultivating merciful and generous societies.
In the rest of the encyclical, Francis takes aim at the things that stand in the way of solidarity and love of neighbor. First, he insists, “Digital connectivity … is not capable of uniting humanity” (43). Technology has its advantages, but social media’s profit-driven, outrage-stoking business model will never be conducive to human flourishing. We need embodied encounters with others that are not subject to surveillance and monetization.
Our free-market economic system also keeps us from loving our neighbors well. Markets cannot create or even tolerate fraternal love, Francis says, because caring for the vulnerable is unprofitable. Poverty, inequality, and unemployment—byproducts of profit-seeking and greed—deprive countless people of “the opportunity to nurture the seeds that God has planted in each of us” (162). Francis doesn’t offer a catch-all solution, and Christians certainly might disagree about the best political and economic path forward. But loving our neighbor demands that we recognize and fight against these widespread injustices.
Even private property and international borders can’t be allowed to stand in the way of fraternal love. Francis cites the ancient Christian teaching that “if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity, it is because another person is detaining it” (119). Likewise, because God has “lent” the earth to all of humanity, “each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (124).
Francis suggests several ways we might fulfill these obligations to our immigrant neighbors, including widely available visas, individual and community sponsorship, and equal access to health care, education, and the justice system. The specific policies don’t matter as much as the principle that no law or national loyalty takes higher priority than love: “Love must never be put at risk, and the greatest danger lies in failing to love” (92).
Despite his emphasis on systems and structures, Francis is clear that fraternal love also requires reforming our own hearts. We must be like the Good Samaritan: attentive to suffering, generous with our resources, and devoted more to love than to social norms. Loving our neighbors in the twenty-first century requires nothing less than remaking ourselves and our societies. Or—to use the more Calvinist passive voice—letting them be remade by God.
There is plenty to criticize in Francis’s letter, of course. Protestants will want more emphasis on grace (and less on Mary), political conservatives more on personal responsibility. Perhaps most notably, Fratelli Tutti quotes no women, mentions gender inequality only in passing, and fails to address the gender exclusivity of the term “fraternal love.”
But despite its flaws, Fratelli Tutti provides a convicting vision of what love of neighbor looks like on a global scale. It challenges us—not alone, but together—to put our faith to work, because “when the good of others is at stake, good intentions are not enough” (185).