On Loving Our Neighbor

by Gami Ortiz

In the 2020 US Census, question 8 reads, “Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?” I mark “Yes – Puerto Rican.” It’s followed up by question 9. “What is Person 1’s race?” Didn’t I just answer that? My passive-aggressive side wants to write in, “100-meter dash.” They must have known I’d be confused, because they added, “NOTE: Please answer BOTH Question 8 about Hispanic origin and Question 9 about race. For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.” But none of the options seem applicable – nor consistent in their categorization. Some are references to skin color while others refer to ethnicity and even country of origin. When I moved to the States, others pointed out that I was not white. I wasn’t black either, so brown seemed to make sense. When I lived in Haiti, not only was I called blan, which means white, but even those who were black Americans were called blan. There was a connotation of “foreigner” associated with it – no matter the actual color of your skin.

What’s my point? My experience has been that the concept of race is pretty subjective. Race is a cultural category based on supposed biological differences. Like the census, these categories can be arbitrary and inconsistent. To that end, anthropologists have noted that the division of humans into races was developed in the 18th century in order to create a hierarchy to justify slavery. The racial system, created by the Europeans, set them over the African laborers and gave colonialists a justification for keeping Africans enslaved. Prior to that, there was debate on just how scientists were going to classify differences in people. Classifying and categorizing based on skin color was an easy way to promote slavery. Though the term “race” doesn’t have the biological backing it once was thought to have, it doesn’t negate the reality that the term exists with real consequences.

In last week’s blog, Abraham gave us some self-evaluation questions to help us start the conversation on racism/ethnocentrism. I would humbly add my perspective to continue the conversation. Abraham rightly pointed to the gospel as the primary solution to this issue of racism/ethnocentrism. In looking to the gospel, we acknowledge the heart-change the Holy Spirit works in us when we embrace Christ. But the context of the gospel should also inform our response. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to identify with humanity in order that people could identify with him and his message. Scripture tells us that the Word became flesh and lived among his people (John 1:14). Jesus left his glory and place on the throne of heaven and clothed himself in humanity in order to relate to man and man with him. In doing so, he set an example for how we are to engage with the world. Educating ourselves is a good first step, but it can’t end there. There needs to be an experiential element. Abraham’s blog also alluded to this. “As a church, it looks like continuing to love God and people not only by killing our prejudices but also by embracing, celebrating, and learning from the diversity of people God connects us to as we seek out those relationships.” That kind of identification requires an intentionality on our part. It is also loving our neighbor.

In Luke 10, we have a man who knew the heart of the law was to love God and love his neighbor. Verse 29 says that he wanted to justify himself and so asked who exactly he was obligated to love. Maybe he reasoned that he had fulfilled the first commandment, but the second depended on how he defined his neighbor. 1 John 4:21 tells us that anyone who loves God must also love his brother or sister. In order to illustrate loving our neighbor, Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Jews considered Samaritans worse than Gentiles. But that didn’t stop the Samaritan from actively loving the Jewish man in need. He didn’t wait until he was asked, he didn’t make any excuses, and he also didn’t make a big deal of it. Seeing a need was enough to move him to action. He loved sacrificially. He crossed a cultural and ethnic boundary because he identified with humanity – this was his neighbor.

The concept of cultures and nations and peoples is a central theme in Scripture. The Old Testament contains many references to the nations worshiping God. This does not change through the lens of an eternal perspective. Revelation 7:9 says that gathered before the throne of God was a great multitude from every nation, tribe, peoples, and languages. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 does not refer to the eradication of gender or ethnicity, but to the equality in Christ that supersedes all human distinction. In light of that view of eternity and acknowledging that we live in the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom, then we ought to pursue this. In fact, embracing equality in Christ and celebrating our ethnic and cultural differences will only enrich our worship of our Creator – not just in eternity, but in the here and now.

In The Gospel in Human Contexts: Anthropological Explorations for Contemporary Missions, Paul Hiebert says, “learning that being human and Christian are our deepest identities must be an intentional part of discipling.” On being human, we are all equals and should identify with each other as fellow image-bearers of God. You don’t have to agree with me on whether or not the term race is valid or appropriate. But I hope we can agree that on being Christian, among our responsibilities are the call to love our neighbor and to make disciples. These aren’t passive endeavors, but active pursuits.

So, as a community of disciple-makers towards the Great Commission, may we be known for loving our neighbors well, identifying with them regardless of ethnic background or any other socio-economic status.