The Second Great Commandment

In the discussion following Tom Bertonneau’s post Another Day in the College Classroom, commenter Johnathan J. has been arguing with Dr. Bertonneau and me about the interpretation of the Dominical injunctions that we ought to turn the other cheek, do unto others, love our neighbours as ourselves, and so forth. While I greatly respect Johnathan’s position – not least because it used to be my own – I think it is incorrect, and impossible to carry into practice while also surviving.

While I doubt it will change Johnathan’s mind, I am going to take the opportunity this presents to repost a comment I made to a discussion at VFR in 2008, on the same subject, which was itself a repost of a comment I posted to a private online discussion group, and which owed its central insight to long-time VFR commenter Sage McLaughlin. Sage is a brilliant man, and his profound comment, quoted below, cleared up a lot of questions about Christian morality that had bedeviled me for years.

Many members of this community are either Christians, or used to be, or are sort of Christian, or something; at any rate, they hold in high esteem Jesus’ injunction that we should love our neighbour as ourselves. This saying at the core of the faith, and thus at the core of our civilization, had always been a stumbling block for me, because it seemed as though it contravened the whole order of the universe, which operates on gradations in value and worthiness, on differences; and that it contradicted also the entirety of Biblical religion, in which God is (among other things) a Judge discriminating the relative merit of everything that happens, right up to the differences among the choirs of angels.

The best interpretation I could come up with was that Jesus’ first great commandment that we should love God with all our being meant that I should have no love left over for myself. This would not be the death of me, because in loving God I should also love his will for me, which provides for my best good. That is, I should be more inclined to do His will, and so to prosper. Loving God instead of myself would be good for me. How then should I love my neighbour? Just as I should love myself: not at all. If I love God with my whole being, then I will do what is best for me, and I will also do what is best for my neighbour, because God wills what is best for both myself and my neighbour.

I recently read a comment by a fellow named Sage McLaughlin [that said:]

When we are told to love our enemies as ourselves, this does not mean we are to treat them the same way we treat ourselves—Christ did not say, “Don’t have enemies.” He takes for granted that we shall have foes, but demands that we love them as human beings and that we hate the disfiguring effects of sin on their immortal souls, just as we hate them in ourselves. We must do this, and we must forgive all those who ask our forgiveness—but we do not have to outdo God, who abandons to eternal damnation all those who turn from Him and walk in darkness.

I.e., we are to love the good and hate the bad in other people just as we love the good and hate the bad in ourselves. In order to do that—in order to move closer to goodness and further from wickedness in ourselves, and in our society, and in the creation at large—we must discriminate between good and bad, and choose goodness. That we forgive the wickedness of our enemies does not automatically make them friends; and if they cannot let go of their deadly hatred of us, then in order to control the risk to us of their hatred, we must perforce destroy them with it. In that case, we cannot survive to forgive them except by defending ourselves, and working their destruction, however that may grieve us.

23 thoughts on “The Second Great Commandment

  1. “We must do this, and we must forgive all those who ask our forgiveness—but we do not have to outdo God, who abandons to eternal damnation all those who turn from Him and walk in darkness.”

    And when we decide whether or not we are outdoing God on any given point — do we err in the direction of pronouncing too much eternal damnation on the world, or too little? It’s one thing to judge the worth of a person’s visible character, and yet another to judge the ultimate worth of their soul.

    So I think that analogy was overreaching just a little, in terms of suggesting what we are and are not called to do.

    • Funny, I didn’t read Sage that way at all. It seemed to me that his basic point was that insofar as God loves all his creatures, it follows that *if we want to treat things as they ought really to be treated* – i.e., according to God’s omniscient evaluation of their worth – we ought to love our fellow creatures as God does; nevertheless we ought not to forgive the sins that even God himself does not forgive – because he cannot, being prevented by the unrepentant sinner’s rejection of salvation.

      Hate the sin, love the sinner, in other words.

      • The general misunderstanding on the other thread seemed to be over whether ‘forgiveness’ should be stretched to mean ‘shielding a person from the consequences of their actions’ and implicitly allowing them to sin again with impunity (something I would hesitate to say God does). In that sense a person on this Earth can easily recommend themselves to us by their actions such that we cannot extend to them forgiveness, not without any repentance on their part.

        I was put off by the words ‘eternal damnation’, a state which presupposes either that a person is incapable of repentance (their soul is ruined), or that it is too late for them to repent (their soul is condemned by God). Neither of these states are we capable of, or (arguably) permitted to, judge, so God’s final non-forgiveness of the damned is a thing of an entirely different order from His temporal non-forgiveness of the earthly unrepentant; the latter is the only thing that seems at all safe or possible to imitate, and that only because ‘tough love’ is far more consistent with God’s character than limp coddling of a person’s iniquity.

        And lest one think this does not give enough leeway for judgment of this or that particular instance, the treatment of Israel in the Old Testament shows amply, I think, how tough God’s love can get.

      • Excellent. Forgiveness of sins, either by God or by man, does not entail wiping out their causal consequences for the sinner. That God has forgiven sins does not mean that they are rendered painless or inconsequential. Thus the work of Justice may require the suffering of the forgiven sinner, as the bandit crucified with Jesus who begged for the Lord’s mercy accompanied his Captain to Paradise that very day – but not without suffering all the pangs of his own crucifixion and death.

        This is why, when in the execution of justice men are put to death in Christian lands, the proper thing to say to them right before they are killed is, “May God have mercy on your soul.” We are to love the sinner and wish for his salvation even as we slay him.

    • Let’s go all the way back to the earliest surviving manual of Christian living, the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written according to some scholars as early as AD 40, but at the latest in the first years of the second century. It is pretty strong stuff, indeed thrilling. I have bolded some of the relevant passages:

      Chapter 1. The Two Ways; The First Commandment

      There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbour as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would should not occur to you, do not also do to another. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there, if you love those who love you? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy. Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone gives you a blow upon your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes away your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one that asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts). Happy is he that gives according to the commandment; for he is guiltless. Woe to him that receives; for if one having need receives, he is guiltless; but he that receives not having need, shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what, and, coming into straits (confinement), he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape thence until he pay back the last farthing. Matthew 5:26 But also now concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.

      Chapter 2. The Second Commandment: Gross Sin Forbidden

      And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, Exodus 20:13-14 you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, Exodus 20:15 you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten. You shall not covet the things of your neighbour, Exodus 20:17 you shall not forswear yourself, Matthew 5:34 you shall not bear false witness, Exodus 20:16 you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued; for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbour. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.

      Chapter 3. Other Sins Forbidden

      My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it. Be not prone to anger, for anger leads the way to murder; neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper; for out of all these murders are engendered. My child, be not a lustful one; for lust leads the way to fornication; neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye; for out of all these adulteries are engendered. My child, be not an observer of omens, since it leads the way to idolatry; neither an enchanter, nor an astrologer, nor a purifier, nor be willing to took at these things; for out of all these idolatry is engendered. My child, be not a liar, since a lie leads the way to theft; neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered. My child, be not a murmurer, since it leads the way to blasphemy; neither self-willed nor evil-minded, for out of all these blasphemies are engendered. But be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5 Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and gentle and good and always trembling at the words which you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself, Luke 18:14 nor give over-confidence to your soul. Your soul shall not be joined with lofty ones, but with just and lowly ones shall it have its intercourse. The workings that befall you receive as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.

      Chapter 4. Various Precepts

      My child, him that speaks to you the word of God remember night and day; and you shall honour him as the Lord; for in the place whence lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And you shall seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. You shall not long for division, but shall bring those who contend to peace. You shall judge righteously, you shall not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether it shall be or no. Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive and a drawer of them back to give. If you have anything, through your hands you shall give ransom for your sins. You shall not hesitate to give, nor murmur when you give; for you shall know who is the good repayer of the hire. You shall not turn away from him that is in want, but you shall share all things with your brother, and shall not say that they are your own; for if you are partakers in that which is immortal, how much more in things which are mortal? You shall not remove your hand from your son or from your daughter, but from their youth shall teach them the fear of God. Ephesians 6:4 You shall not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1 for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but unto them whom the Spirit has prepared. And you bondmen shall be subject to your masters as to a type of God, in modesty and fear. Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22 You shall hate all hypocrisy and everything which is not pleasing to the Lord. Forsake in no way the commandments of the Lord; but you shall keep what you have received, neither adding thereto nor taking away therefrom . Deuteronomy 12:32 In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.

      Chapter 5. The Way of Death

      And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse: murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rapines, false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing requital, not pitying a poor man, not labouring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.

  2. When Jesus said “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” he was quoting Leviticus 19:18. Verses 11-18 of the same book and chapter give us a summary of the ways in which we are to love others as ourselves:

    Thus, we are neither to steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie one to another; we are not to swear by God’s name falsely, nor profane the name of God; we are not to defraud someone, nor are we to rob, or otherwise withhold a man’s wages; we are not to curse the deaf, nor to cause the blind to stumble; we are not to do unrighteousness in judgment, neither respecting the person of the poor, nor honouring the person of the mighty; we are not act the part of talebearers; we are not to hate others in our hearts.

    All of which is to say treating others in the way we should like to be treated by others; none of which is to say cooperating with others in their mistreatment of us, or of supporting them in sin and self-destructive behavior.

  3. I just went over to Wikipedia to look for more from this incredibly rich vein, and found something rather wonderful by Adam Clarke, from his Commentary on the Bible:

    “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” is explained to mean “Act in such a manner that God will be beloved by all His creatures.”[6] Consequently Israel, being, as the priest-people, enjoined like the Aaronite priest to sanctify the name of God and avoid whatever tends to desecrate it (Lev. xxii. 32), is not only obliged to give his life as witness or martyr for the maintenance of the true faith (see Isa. xliii. 12, μάρτυρες; and Pesik. 102b; Sifra, Emor, ix.), but so to conduct himself in every way as to prevent the name of God from being dishonored by non-Israelites.[7]

    Twice every day the Jew recites the Shema, which contains the words: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. vi. 5). This verse is understood to enjoin him to willingly surrender life and fortune whenever the cause of God demands it, while it at the same time urges him to make God beloved by all his creatures through deeds of kindness, as Abraham did (Sifre, Deut. 32).[8]

  4. Dear Kristor,

    It is well known that when one extreme way of thinking becomes popular, other people will tend to over-react to it and go to the other extreme. We in the year 2013 live in a culture that is disgustingly too much into empathy, superficial kindness, a superficial, non-judgemental kind of compassion, “good feelings”, “touchy-feely liberalism”, “online hugs” and so on. This is BTW the result of Post-Modern philosophy tearing down the rationalism of Modernism / Enlightenment Era, so there is nothing but feelings left in post-modern people.

    Now I have this impression that you Orthos tend to be rightly disgusted by this and go to the other extreme and interpret Christian love in a way that entirely lacks compassion and kindness and tolerance, and is something entirely tough and dominant and tough-loving and grim and it resembles something like… a religious knightly order. The New Teutonic Knights.

    Now it is not my job to judge what is the right interpretation of Christianity, all I want to say is – check your thoughts, look for signs of over-reaction and signs of this – understandable, but still problematic – general tendency for going to the other extreme, the opposite extreme of todays touchy-feely trends, the other extreme of too grim strictness and command and control!

    There ought to be a proper middle way somewhere.

    • Thanks, Shenpen. One does indeed want to avoid any bloody-mindedness. I hope I may be sternly joyful.

      I think the Didache sums up my moral aspirations, and my ethical code, pretty well. If only I summed up to it!

    • The problem is that “compassion and kindness and tolerance” are now, generally speaking and especially in Christian circles, interpreted as “acting in accordance with 21st century Leftist dogma.” (Jonathan J’s comments in the other post are a fine example of this pernicious tendency.)

      If traditionalists (“Orthos”) are not going to submit to PC dogma, then they are simply going to have to get used to being accused of entirely lacking “compassion and kindness and tolerance” and of being tough, dominant, grim, and fascistic. Personally I don’t care what they call me, and I am certainly not going to let their ad hominem ankle-biting influence my thoughts, behavior, or interpretation of Christianity.

    • Yes, but we are not to bear false witness against others in any event. We are to do justice to others, we are not to deal deceitfully with others, and so on and so forth; we are to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

    • I thought Tony Esolen’s Touchstone article, Where Went the Neighborhood?, from a few years back was quite interesting on the subject of “who is my neighbor”. IIRC, he outlines how (quite wrong-headedly) sunday school teachers have turned it into some sort of abstract love of the other, e.g., African Aidocracy, to the exclusion of actual love of actual neighbors. There’s some quote from somewhere about loving mankind in the abstract and loving no one in particular. I think that’s probably not what Jesus meant.

      BTW, this interface suddenly works again (Firefox 10.0.4 Linux)! Woo hoo, I can waste more time than ever.

  5. While I greatly respect Johnathan’s position – not least because it used to be my own – I think it is incorrect, and impossible to carry into practice while also surviving.

    Yes, Jonathan J. is, of course, arguing in good faith, and that is to be respected, but the several verses that he mentions are certainly among the top five most misunderstood passages of the bible (along with “Judge not lest ye be judged”, and some others).

    In the previous thread, Kristor says:

    Jesus is here telling us how to respond to unjust coercion, in such a way as to heap burning coals upon the heads of our oppressors.

    This is correct. In the context of Ancient Near Eastern society, where daily life revolved around the concepts of honour-and-shame, Jesus’ recommendations were to be interpreted as ways of shaming the would-be oppressor. They are strategies for discharging one’s legal obligations while simultaneously “fighting back” by causing the oppressor to appear dishonourable.


    “Go with him twain” implies cooperation, as does “let him have thy cloak also”.

    These *kind* of imply cooperation, of a sort, depending on just what you mean by “cooperation”, but really the “cooperation” implied here is pretty superficial.

    You are cooperating with the coercion and or violence inasmuch as you are not resisting and you are also aiding them, allowing them to continue to violate you.

    Likewise here. The aim is not to allow them to continue to violate you, but rather to shame them into stopping to violate you, because you are powerless to resist any other way.

  6. Ilion writes:

    Years ago, talking to a friend, a thought related to what you’re talking about in that post came to me. I hadn’t considered it before, so of course I hadn’t previously tried to flesh it out, and he remained skeptical of the idea.

    Anyway, the thought was this — what we in American call “liberalism” can fruitfully be understood as an attempt to be, or at least to be percieved to be, more righteous than God himself.

    This impulse or drive seems to me frequently to be even stronger in secular “liberals”, those who explicitly reject Biblical religion, than in those who do not; generally next strongest in those who are “religious liberals” (though, it can be very strong in them, too); and generally weaker in those whose “liberalism” is mostly restricted to political matters. Or, to say it another way, in seems to me strongest in those persons for whom “liberal” politics has become (or subsumed) their religion than in those who still maintain a distinction between their religion and their politics.

    I’ll try to get around to fleshing out this idea of being more righteous than God in a post on my blog (which post will be making reference to your post), to which I’ll send you a link.

    • The impulse to “be more righteous than God himself” has strong Biblical roots, eg in Genesis 18:24 where Abraham demands of God that he hold himself to a suitably high standard: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” This passage is regularly used by religious liberals to justify their activism for social justice.

      • Yes, in a book as long and complex as the Bible, it is often possible to find a passage that seems to support whatever position the reader holds. Many people are skilled at imposing their own interpretations on various texts. However, each passage needs to be read not only in its proper context, but also in the overarching context of the totality of the Bible itself.

        This is no easy task, and part of why we so often fail at it. It is why we need to continue to read our Bibles and study them, to be churched and catechized.

    • To be more righteous than God– could be something in it.
      The liberal project, as I have often written, aims at erasing the distinction between a neighbor and a stranger. That is, it would eliminate nations. The liberal hates particularity and authoritativeness.

      Christians do not fully appreciate Love Thy Neighbor. Other religions, Hinduism for instance would say All Earth is Family. That is putting the matter rather abstractly, but the Church puts it concretely–The Neighborhood. What is physically close to me, I should love that.
      That is, I should pay attention locally- a person when he is close to me physically, he is the one I should love. This establishes a proper hierarchy of love and care-proper for both earth and as a preparation for heaven.

  7. Pingback: The Thinking Housewife › Loving Our Neighbors


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