Religion begins here, at loving humanity. When it comes to love of self and family, Jesus assumes it, almost ignores it, and actually warns against it: Who is my mother? He said. Who is my brother? My mother and my brother are those that do the will of God. He had bigger plans. He realized that the best way to love his family was to love everyone. Love is blind. His point was that the love for our family shouldn’t get in the way or interfere with our love for humanity. It often does. John Woolman, an abolitionist and beautiful soul, said that slavery was perpetuated by too much love for children. Slaveholders wanted to provide for their children, whatever the cost. And they did provide for their children: and guess who paid the cost?
A man named James Oglethorpe, the George Washington of England in the early 1700’s, visited a jail and had compassion on the inmates. It was dirty, nasty, disease-infested, little food, lots of booze, no medical care. James went up to King George II and said “give me 116 inmates and I will give them a new start in the new word.” And so he did. He called it Georgia. That’s compassion.
Between 1980 and 2003, the prison population of Michigan more than tripled (Collateral Consequences, 2). That’s not compassion.
To love humanity is to pass laws that support humanity.
Have you ever suffered through a book on the evolution of altruism? Some of these science writers bang their heads against the wall, wondering how in the world pure altruism could possibly exist? These writers assume a pathetic tone and, as they squeeze water from rocks, good people are swarming the streets. In the meantime, they have done a good job trying to destroy the concept of altruism altogether, trying to explain it away rather than explain it. It’s hypocritical and short sighted. They have no trouble explaining aggression, and war, and all the nasty bits of our nature.
However, the new field of “positive psychology” is balancing the scales. We are born with the amazing gift called mirror neurons. When you watch a person suffer, your brain literally suffers with them. It’s the biological bedrock for the Golden Rule. Don’t let anyone tell you that loving humanity is not natural. A baby cries when another baby cries; that’s empathy taking root. The pessimists, as always, have have truths. Instead of reading them, perhaps we should read about Simone Weil, or Albert Schweitzer, or Keats, Mozart, Confucius and Socrates. Perhaps we should remember that yesterday your grandson learned to walk; he came over and gave you some of his chocolate bar; it almost made you cry. If the story of humanity is dark, there are bright lights that fill the sky. As Saint Francis said, all the darkness cannot extinguish a single light. And, as Yi-Fu Tuan’s book Human Goodness reminds us, there are many lights.
Let the skeptics talk about love as a product of evolution. Of course! I say it too: love is a product of evolution. I said it. So what? I’m a product of my mother. That’s a good thing. You could describe where I came from and you could describe how I am. Where am I going? Where should we go? Now we do ethics. Now we start living. That’s what George Price did.
George Price is the unofficial saint you never heard of. It’s the amazing story of a skeptical scientist becoming a moral saint and therefore proving himself wrong (or, I guess, proving myself right). It’s a very bizarre story of a genius who studied the evolution of altruism, tried to ‘explain it,’ became confused, went crazy, and finally became infected with the love of God. Only feeling happy when he was helping poor people and alcoholics, he died alone; dirty and lovesick in some unknown flat in England. He killed himself, perhaps because he couldn’t help enough people, perhaps because he was lonely, or sick, or all the above. George Price went through two conversions. First, to Christianity. He began studying the Bible like Newton, looking for clues and hints and prophecies. He was still an arrogant prick and bad father. Then, he went through a moral conversion; what he called a love conversion. Then he became a saint.
The trick to loving humanity is to trust people in general. We are losing trust, it appears. Born for Love reports that only 32 percent of Americans agree with this statement: most people can be trusted. In 1960, 58 percent agreed with the statement (3). Perhaps it’s the media, coupled with technology. The media has always reported bad news disproportionately; now it does it much better. When bad news meets Jerry Springer and reality TV, we have a perception problem. We become infected with what Kant would call the pornography of human nature.
The trick to loving humanity is to see real people behind the numbers. People tolerated slavery because they couldn’t see the people behind the institution. Then came Harriet Beacher Stowe, and William Wilberforce, and John Woolman. Once you see the people, you are haunted by it. Here is what a writer said about Paul Brand, a doctor who dedicated his life to treating Leprocy victims in India:
“The great societies of the West have been gradually moving away from an underlying belief in the value of a single human soul. We tend to view history in terms of groups of people: classes, political parties, races, sociological groupings…After prolonged exposure to Dr. Brand, I realized that I had been seeing large human problems in a mathematical model…I had been wrestling with “issues” facing “humanity.” I had not, however, learned to love individuals—people created in the image of God” (Chosen Vessels, 39).
Loving humanity, just like loving your enemies, doesn’t require agreeing with them. It’s not that hard. It doesn’t even require understanding them, although that helps. As Kwame Anthony Appiah says in his book Cosmopolitanism, all that matters is that we get used to them, tolerate them, enter into conversation with them, extend our imagination to them. How about this: Not kill them. Think about that for a second: what would the world be like if we simply stopped killing? Contact, living together, spacial location, integration. Sometimes that breeds toleration more than anything. Young people tolerate gay people. Our parents don’t. Why? We went to college with them. Lack of spacial proximity explains the hope and failure of racial healing in America.
The skeptic says that it’s psychologically impossible to love humanity. Humanity is too big. There is no “out group,” no “other” that you can say “we are not like them,” which forms group identity. How can you form an identity with humanity if there is nothing to define it against? No; this is a fart of the intellect. What is this–high school football? There is a grain of truth. Yes, it is true that, for example, some Christians feel a sense of identity by hating gay people. It brings them together, in a real way, but the hatred is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition. People form groups in many different ways; groups come together in many different ways. Human nature is not a teeter-totter. We are not hydraulic machines that once you pump a certain fluid here (love), an opposite fluid must come up there (hate).
Loving humanity takes moral imagination. This is our challenge. Adam Smith said that when we hear about the earthquake in China, we get sad; but when a “frivolous disaster” happens to ourself, the world turns upside down. We have more practice in the one and not the other. Globalization is new. We will learn. When I heard about 9/11 in high school I didn’t shed a tear. Now I probably would. I got better. Plus there’s the issue of emotion. The emotion of loving your mother is a little more concrete than the emotion of loving humanity (a beautiful emotion!). But it’s all good; sometimes you can love people more with your intellect, imagination, and abstract compassion.
Otto Keller was my kind of missionary: kind, loving, humorous, spiritual and practical. All of the things we don’t like about missionary people–he was not. He devoted his life to Africans. He learned their languages. He believed the Africans physical needs were as important and prerequisites for spiritual ones. He build houses and hospitals and plants. He saw them as equals and they him. His theology was simple; he preached by telling people about his friend, Christ. This is what his own son said of him:
“His was a totally selfless life poured out for others. He gave and gave and gave that others might gain life. This in essence is the very life of God, the love of Christ, demonstrated in the brief, shining life of a common man” (Chosen Vessels, 106).
Andrew Carnegie, the great steel baron, was a financial lover of humanity. “I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution” (Autobiography, 255). Before Obama said “redistribution of wealth,” Carnegie said it and did it. He revered and respected his mother and father and followed the moral pattern that they set. He also believed in the social gospel interpretation of Christianity—the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now. He was cosmopolitan, respecting the truth of all religions. He loved literature. I wonder: How many great men were also renaissance men?
It’s a paradox that sometimes the greatest lovers of humanity treated their own family badly. St. Augustine, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr.: all harmed their family to some degree. Don’t we all? The Buddha, Jesus, Teresa of Avila, Marie Guyart: all left their family to pursue a higher calling. It almost seems as though the hero must give up his familial love to serve a higher love, as if the one takes away the other. In The Matrix trilogy, Neo cannot decide between his love for humanity and his love for Trinity (his lover). He does the unthinkable: he chooses both.
We can choose both. There is no paradox. Only larger love. God does not make us choose. It’s an exaggeration. Jesus and Gandhi loved their friends as much as anyone else. The only finite thing when it comes to love is time. How shall we spend our time? On what? With Whom? Habitat for Humanity, or bring the dog to the spa?
It is a big philosophical question whether emotions have anything to do with our moral lives. Emotions have their place too, even negative ones. Simply put, emotions are used by the mind to perform moral actions. For example, when you see preventable suffering, anger is the appropriate response. Look at Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. They had a controlled, righteous anger; it fueled their compassion and nonviolence. When Jesus wept, he was overcome with compassion. Stoics use emotions to do their duty. Kant says emotions are “surrogates for the motive of duty” (quoted in Bagnoli 68). The person on the corner protesting war is angry. The man who gets cheated on is angry. What will they do?–now we talk right and wrong.
Some emotions are better than others. No doubt about that. Anger, hate, envy, pride, lust, jealousy–should be eradicated from your life as much as much as possible. Unless they are supporting good action, they are bad. Thanks to God and myself, I cannot remember the last time I felt a negative emotion. Other emotions–love, compassion, respect, sympathy, joy, sadness–these too can be used for good. I feel them from time to time; I consider it a gift, not an expectation. Did you cry when you watched the 9/11 towers fall? Did you cry when the first African American president was inaugurated? Thank God: your love of humanity was renewed.
To depend on good emotions for good action – that’s a mistake; it reminds me of a similar mistake – to lose faith because you ‘don’t feel it anymore.’ A billionaire gives to charity. He feels good and gets praise from everybody. All well and good. The praise eventually fades, and he feels nothing when he writes the checks. He stops giving. Why? Here is where Kant’s ideas are spot on. Emotions come and go, but our duty to right and wrong never goes. Sometimes feelings are associated with doing the right thing. Sometimes they are not. The problem is we can’t turn them on and off; we are not in control of them as we are with our rational thoughts. The greatest moral saints all helped people out of a sense of duty, a principle; not an emotion.
Which brings us back to the command to love your neighbor, and to love your enemy, which is also a command to love humanity. I won’t go into the meaning of the greek or anything, but suffice it to say we are not talking about an emotion here. God is not commanding that you feel an emotion for a perfect stranger. Kant said it best:
“So the saying ‘you ought to love your neighbor as yourself’ does not mean that you ought immediately to love him and [afterwords] by means of this love do good to him. It means, rather, do good to your fellow human beings, and your beneficience will produce love of them in you” (Met of Morals, p. 162).