As indicated in recent posts from the United States, I have been reading a book of biblical reflections by the German theologian Fulbert Steffensky entitled Schöne Aussichten: Einlassungen auf biblische Texte. He brings a fresh perspective to some familiar texts and I haven’t read anything yet that was even slightly tedious. But, thinking about some of the questions raised about our culture, society, young people and values, Steffensky reminded me of a translation matter I had read a long time ago, but seem to have forgotten.
Jesus picked up the injunction in Leviticus 19 that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Except that, according to Steffensky and others, he didn’t. What the words actually mean is:
Love your neighbour, he is as you are.
In other words, rather than inviting all sorts of twentyfirst century narcissistic agonising over whether I can love anyone else if I don’t love myself (or am not first fulfilled in myself), the point is that I am to love my neighbour because he/she and I are one. We have a common humanity. We are both made ‘in the image of God’. And that goes for my enemies as well as my friends, the aliens and strangers as well as my family, the weird as well as the wonderful.
At one point Steffensky says:
If I say: ‘They are not like us,’ then we are also saying: ‘We can do to them what should never be done to us.’
He then quotes the Jewish poet Erich Fried, who was once asked in a television programme how he would define a Neo-Nazi. He replied:
A Neo-Nazi is a human being who gets toothache like I do, who suffers for love like I do, and who can weep like I can.
The difference between us does not obviate this common humanity which must lie at the root of any Christian ethic. Steffensky is thinking through the assumptions about human value that underpin an ethic worth building on. To do as the tabloids do and portray appalling criminals as ‘monsters’ – thus making them ‘not like us’ – is to avoid the hard critique of ourselves as well as the societies we create. It is a self-justifying form of distraction therapy.
Steffensky goes on to explore the implications of this, rejecting along the way the suggestion that he is pleading for a ‘contentless tolerance or general relativism’. Rather, he warns those who wish to eliminate ‘difference’ against the temptation to ‘clean up’ the world – in fact, one of the glaringly obvious things Jesus challenged: the dangerous obsession with purity that eliminates the ‘unclean’. German history has relatively recent experience of what this looks like.
It might be useful if an English publisher would produce Steffensky’s book here.