One of the primary tenets of all world religions is to treat others as you would like to be treated or to love your neighbor as you would wish to be loved. Easy to say. Hard to do.
It is quite simple to say that we believe in something. It is much more complex when we are asked to actually live our lives based on that belief. That is why when one speaks of religion, I think that instead of asking what one’s religious tenets are, one should ask what the religion asks you to do or how you should live.
What does it mean to love your neighbor? To me, “neighbor” is a term that means all of humanity — not just your next-door neighbor. It implies that you don’t have a choice as to whom to love. We need to love our enemies; we need to love those who are of a different class; we need to love those who believe differently from ourselves. Altogether too often we hear explicit statements expressing disdain or disgust for those whose culture is different from ours. But the premise contained in “loving one’s neighbor” doesn’t specify that we are to love only those who are like us or who believe as we do.
Once you agree with my supposition that we should love everyone regardless, we can move on to the next step, which is how one loves. Love is an active verb; it is not passive. Love’s activity can be measured in how we treat each other. Are we hospitable, compassionate, kind, helpful and supportive to all? Remember, this isn’t just about those we like. This is a most difficult thing to do — to treat everyone equally and with love.
Jesus asked us to turn the other cheek. That means if someone is a jerk (and some people do act that way), we aren’t a jerk in return. If someone is downright ignorant from your point of view, we don’t reject him or her out of hand. We could even try to understand their perspective if we truly love them.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says that we are to feed the hungry, be hospitable to the stranger, clothe those in need of clothes, take care of the sick and to visit those in prison. These are active demonstrations of love. This passage is clear that all are deserving of our acts of love because if you do it to “the least of these,” you do it to Jesus and for Jesus. But equally clear is that we are to physically perform acts of love, not just think them.
I hear and read that all one needs to do to be “saved” is to believe a particular way. That in many ways seems so very easy. But then I think of how tortuous the road to right behavior can be. Putting our beliefs into action takes fortitude. How often have we actually lived out Matthew 25? Have we fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and clothed those who need clothes? Have you ever visited a prisoner? Even one who is guilty?
I come from a faith tradition that does not ask us to adhere to a set of statements in order to belong. But it does ask us to be active in our lives: to work for justice, to help those who are oppressed, to work with others for the rights of others. This does not mean that all Unitarian Universalists live their beliefs, it just means that we at least acknowledge that it is important to act on them.
There are many faith traditions with many different tenets and theologies. Many say that in order to be saved you must believe in their tenets. I suggest, however, that it is not the different beliefs that are critical to salvation; rather it is the practice of those tenets that are most important. We must live our faith.
Who are we to judge who is religiously correct in their tenets? Didn’t Jesus say not to judge? He openly and lovingly accepted those whom others judged as his inferiors in both class and beliefs. He modeled the behavior he expected of us. Instead of judging other faiths, we should adhere to the model of activity required by our faith. The result for all of us would be a world based on love. Wouldn’t that be heavenly?
Actions based on beliefs are much more convincing than words alone.
The Rev. Becky Gunn is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor. She may be contacted at email@example.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.