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Exploring Neighbour Love Ecologically

ISS Reports


A paper given at the seminar on the Environmental Crisis held by the Institute for Spiritual Studies on the 11th of August, 2012.

Delivered by Anne Elvey, MCD, University of Divinity and Monash University.

In a 1996 article, "Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity", James Nash writes:

Christianity's ecological potential is most clearly evident in the elemental and comprehensive affirmation of faith: God is love. This claim has radical implications for ecological ethics. If God the Creator, Christ, and Spirit is love, then the process of creation itself is an act of love. And all creatures, human and otherkind, are not only gifts of love but products of love and ongoing beneficiaries of love. Moreover, since fidelity to God implies respect for divine affections, then Christians are called to be faithful images of God the lover, to love everyone whom God loves, and this includes at least all forms of life, along with care for their necessary habitats.

On these assumptions, the answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" which prompts the parable of the Good Samaritan, is: Our neighbors to be loved are all God's beloved creatures. The "love of nature" is simply the "love of neighbor" universalized, in recognition of our common origins, mutual dependencies, and shared destiny with the whole creation of the God who is universal love. The task of Christian ecological ethics, then, is to help us define the character and conduct of the good neighbor, the ecological equivalent of the Good Samaritan. This is a monumentally difficult task in the tragic, predatorial biosphere of which we are parts and products...

Ecological responsibility becomes an inherent, not an optional, part of the ministry of the church, which is called to be a sign of God's ministry of love to all creation.[1]

Nash's comments represent an understanding of love, especially neighbour love, in an ecologically informed Christian orthodoxy. Such a position is both attractive and necessary, but I want to suggest there is a case for approaching the question differently, perhaps in a somewhat less orthodox way. I will begin with the question "Who is my neighbour?" as it appears in the Gospel of Luke, and explore the way the parable that the Lukan Jesus tells in response works both to unsettle the notion of neighbour and, in the context of the Lukan narrative, to offer a paradigm of compassionate love that unsettles the status quo. Toward the end, I will suggest three ways in which we might explore this compassionate neighbour love ecologically. The first is to note that the act of compassion always occurs as a more than human action. The second is to note that the unsettling of the notion of neighbour on the one hand opens a space, such as that taken up by Nash, to extend the notion of neighbour, and on the other, asks us to both imagine and recognise where we have found ourselves tended not only by human others, but by otherkind: when has earth, its soils, seas and atmosphere, plants and other animals and other humans, acted as neighbour to us? The third is to begin to explore in what ways these kinds of more than human neighbour love, where earth is co-neighbour with us, where we neighbour earthkind (including other humans, such as climate refugees), and where other earthkind act as neighbour to us, work together to unsettle the status quo, a status quo that keeps us on a dangerous trajectory in relation to climate change, habitat loss and species extinctions.

Neighbour love: who is my neighbour?

Luke 10:25-29 reads:

And behold a certain lawyer stood up to test him saying, Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And he said to him, In the law/Torah what is written? How do you read? And he answered him, Love the lord your God out of (ex, from) your whole heart (kardias) and in (en) your whole soul (psuche) and in (en) your whole strength (ischui) and in (en) your whole mind/understanding/purpose (dianoia), and your neighbour (plesion) as yourself. And he said to him, Rightly/correctly/properly (Orthos), you have answered. Do this and you will live. But wishing to justify (dikaiosai) himself, he said to Jesus, And who is my neighbour (plesion)?

The whole passage is thoroughly grounded in its Jewish roots. It resonates with teaching from the Hebrew Bible and later Rabbinic sources. The lawyer quotes two passages from the Hebrew Bible: Deut 6:4-5—"Hear O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (the Lord is one). You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might"—and Lev 19:18—"you shall love your neighbour as yourself". The second, the command of neighbour love, appears in a wider context of familial, social and communal justice, more than human agricultural and social engagement that shows a concern for keeping species boundaries (Lev 19:15-19). In its Levitical context, it is not simply an isolated inter-human ethic.

The dual ethic, that links love of God and love of neighbour, is according to early twentieth century Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig, indispensable. For Rosenzweig, love of God, God's love for the soul, is incomplete without love of neighbour. The mystic, for example, he argues, remains closed in, unethical even, without neighbour love. Neighbour love has for Rosenzweig both particular and universal aspects that are constitutive of it, aspects which imply its connectedness with the created world.[2]

Before we turn to the parable through which the Lukan Jesus responds to the question "Who is my neighbour?" let me go back to the previous question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The Lukan Jesus asks what the Torah says and the lawyer replies in terms of the dual love commandment as we have seen. The primary texts for considering Luke's understanding of love (agape) come toward the end of Luke 6: "But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to/for those who hate you" (kalos poiete, 6.27; agathopoieite, 6.35a). Not only does this saying present a difficult task, it sets out for Luke what is meant by love; to love is to do good for someone/something. The reversal that marks the Lukan programme of liberation (aphesis) for poor (and rich) is here, in another way, the mark of love:

love your enemies;
do good to/for those who hate you (6:27, 35a);
bless those who curse you (6:28)

and so participate in the kindness and mercy of God (6:35b-36), which Luke describes in the Benedictus as gutfelt. "[T]he gutfelt mercies of our God (splanchna eleous theou hemon)/in which will visit (episkepsetai) us the dawn from on high" (1:78), are linked in the previous verse with release (en aphesi) from sin/debt (1:77). These gut-felt mercies mark the visitation of God, in which the hearers, addressed in 6:27 and following, are called to participate, as the woman who anoints Jesus' feet in 7:36-50 does, when she "loves much" (7:47). When the lawyer asks Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to receive, or gain possession of, eternal life?", the hearer/reader remembering 6:27, 35a might recall that what is required is to "do good to those who hate you", and to "do to others what you would have them do th you" (6:31) which echoes in the command "to love one's neighbour as oneself" that the lawyer quotes and to which the Lukan Jesus responds, "Rightly have you answered; do this and you will live" (10:28). In other words, the dual commandment of love is resonant with the Hebrew command to "choose life". But famously the lawyer asks: "Who is my neighbour?" In answer, the Lukan Jesus tells the parable known as the Good Samaritan.[3]

The parable displays a pattern in which seeing is the dominant sense (though this leads to life-giving touch, but I will leave that aside for now). A person of unspecified ethnicity, but it would be reasonable to assume the person to be a Judean/Jew, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon, stripped, beaten and left half dead (10:30). The parable sets up a contrast between the lawyer's desire for life—what must I do to have life?—and death. See the person lying near death on the way, the parable seems to be saying. The implied command to see becomes more explicit as the story progresses; in succession a priest then a Levite happen to be going down the same road and each sees:

and seeing him, passed by on the other side; kai idon auton antiparelthen (10:31)
and seeing (him), passed by on the other side; kai idon antiparelthen (10:32)

The action of seeing prompts a further action of passing by on the other side (antiparelthen). Much has been made of why they might have acted in this way, but this is not the key point of the story. A third person happens along, a Samaritan, who while travelling comes upon the person:

and seeing (him) was moved with compassion; kai idon esplanchnisthe (10:33).

The repetition of seeing followed by response highlights the contrast with the first two characters and emphasises the need to see rightly. Right seeing prompts compassion, a movement in the gut, signalled by the verb splanchnizomai, which echoes the gut-felt movement of divine mercy (splancha eleous theou hemon) in the visitation of God (1:78). This pattern occurs twice elsewhere in Luke, in 7:13 (where a widow is going out to bury her son) and 15:20 (where the father in the parable of the lost son sees his son returning):

and seeing her, the Lord had compassion on her; kai idon auten ho kurios esplanchnisthe ep' aute (7:13)
his father saw him and had compassion on him; eiden auton ho pater autou kai esplanchnisthe (15:20)

In each case, the protagonist sees—in 7:13 the Lukan Jesus, titled lord, sees the bereaved widow; in 15:20 a father sees his disgraced son returning; in 10:33 the Samaritan sees the wounded person on the road—and each, moved in the guts with compassion, acts in such a way as (through touch) to bring life from death.

At the end of the parable, there is a further twist, Jesus answers but does not answer the lawyer's question. He shifts the original question "Who is my neighbour?" (10:29) to "Which of these three acted as neighbour to the person who fell into the hands of the robbers?" (10:36). And the lawyer does not use the word Samaritan, but responds "the one who showed mercy" (10:37a). The Jesus says "Go and do likewise" (10:37b), that is, do good, participate in the visitation of divine mercy. The turning of the question not only extends the understanding of neighbour, but challenges the lawyer to place himself in the position of the one left half-dead on the road receiving the compassionate attention of the Samaritan, and thus challenged to receive and respond to the divine visitation.

Exploring neighbour love ecologically

How might we explore this pattern of compassionate neighbour love ecologically? As noted in my introduction, it is important that we situate neighbour love in a more than human context. When we look at the parable, we note that the action of the Samaritan is not a lone action: "going to him he bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine (on them), and placing him on his own pack animal, he brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day, taking out two denarii he gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him, and whatever you spend in addition, on my return I will give you" (10:34-35). The loving action occurs within a community of agency, in which the material elements of oil and wine, the cloth for bandages, the plants from which this cloth was produced, the animal who bears the wounded person, the environment and hospitality of the inn, the human labour to extract oil, make wine and weave bandages, and another human, namely the innkeeper, even the metals of the coins, are all necessary for the Samaritan's act of mercy, of doing good. This is not an unusual situation; every act for ill or good occurs within a wider network of human and other earthkind, whose interrelatedness makes no act solo. We usually forget this, but an ecological ethic pushes us to keep this in mind, at the very least as a way of allowing our understanding of ourselves, our subjectivity and our agency, our capacity to act, to be transformed in an ecological conversion of the heart/mind.

Secondly, at a human level, the parable unsettles the notion of neighbour in at least two ways. Instead of the religious figures, a priest and a Levite, who might be expected to act in accord with the command to love the neighbour, it is a Samaritan, one also under Torah but at some enmity with his/her Judean/Jewish neighbours, who acts compassionately, recognising the wounded person, likely Judean, as neighbour, and so participating in the directive to "love your enemies". This human extension of the notion of neighbour beyond the immediate kinship or community group, allows for the kind of extension to other earthkind that Nash describes.

A further unsettling occurs with the shift of question from "Who is my neighbour?" to "Who acted as neighbour?" For Nash this suggests that: "The task of Christian ecological ethics, then, is to help us define the character and conduct of the good neighbour, the ecological equivalent of the Good Samaritan."[4] He notes that this is not a simple task in that we do not always know when to act and when to "let be" when faced with realities such as predation for example.

Yet a further unsettling is evident if we hear the question, as Alan Cadwallader has suggested, as pointing the lawyer to see himself in the one who was set upon be robbers, one tended by the Samaritan.[5] We may then ask: when are we tended by the neighbour? Where and when we have found ourselves tended not only by human others but by otherkind, earthkind; when has earth—its soils, seas and atmosphere, places, plants and other animals—acted as neighbour to us?

Finally, in Luke neighbour love is part of a structure of divine visitation, where the hospitality of God is evident in compassion and forgiveness (which is both metaphorically and literally liberation/freedom from debt—a symbol of oppression). Informed by the directive to love your enemies, neighbour love is not simply a contrast to but, sharing in the pattern of divine visitation, it is also a disruption of destructive patterns of behaviour such as the system of debt that destroys links with family and land. Eric Santner sees neighbour love in a similar way, as love for the other at the point where the other is most unlovable, and so as opening up "new possibilities for collective life".[6] He draws on Rosenzweig for whom neighbour love, while focussed on the one in need immediately before me, has a universal character: "The neighbor is therefore...only [I think the 'only' is unhelpful] a place-keeper; oriented by way of substitution toward the one who is, each time in the fleeting moment of his present moment, his neighbor, love is really oriented toward the embodiment of all those—men [humans] and things—that could at any moment take this place of its neighbor, in the last resort it applies to everything, it applies to the world."[7] The extension of neighbour love to a more than human context is, as Nash suggests, already embodied in the character of this love. This extension cannot be trite; rather it calls us into a deep engagement with earthkind, as their woundedness and need calls to us in the complexities of their existence, as we are neighboured by them, and as our actions are always already dependent on the complex more than human networks which enable our actions and, one could say, cooperate with us (and we with them) when we act.


  1. James A. Nash, "Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity", Interpretation 50:1 (1996): 9.
  2. Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), The Star of Redemption, trans. Barbara E. Galli (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), esp. 221-36.
  3. See further, my forthcoming article in which this and the following paragraph appear in large part, as part of a longer discussion: Anne Elvey, "Love and Justice in the Gospel of Luke: Ecology, the Neighbour and Hope", Australian Biblical Review 60 (2012): 1-17.
  4. Nash, "Toward the Ecological Reformation of Christianity", 9.
  5. This refers to a personal discussion with Alan Cadwallader at the Bible and Critical Theory seminar in Brisbane, November 2011.
  6. Eric L. Santner, On Creaturely Life: Rilke, Benjamin, Sebald (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  7. Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, 234.

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