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Perspective: We need self-love

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By Cecilia González-Andrieu

Jesus taught it, and even popular culture accepts its wisdom: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Yet this apparently simple idea is anything but.

The Gospel of Matthew presents it as an expansive, complicated, and surprisingly specific challenge to humanity. In the story, as Jesus is asked many questions (and dialogue is the best way to teach!), one scholar’s voice reverberates through the centuries: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Jesus answers by echoing the teachings of their shared religious tradition (Lev. 19:18): “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:35-39).

I think it’s fair to say that, for most of our history, Christians have paid good attention to the requirement to love God. We’ve been less successful living out the love of neighbor, and even less capable of seeing how these are linked. Because of this, I want to call attention to the overlooked third love that Jesus names here: the love of self. Could this reinvigorate the world-changing power in Jesus’ teaching?

If we look carefully at the way the love of God + neighbor + self are interconnected, we may realize that love of self is our weakest link. Can we repair this?

In our day, after centuries of disregard, we’re finally paying attention to mental health, self-esteem, and the consequences of abuse. This increased awareness may be ushering in a whole “new epoch” in human history, as Pope Francis likes to say.

If we are rendered incapable of loving ourselves, how could we even imagine being loved by God or doing the challenging work of loving others?

Let’s look at the example of sexism and its most extreme expression — domestic violence. Today, we know that abusers control those they are abusing by attacking their self-worth and isolating them from the love of others. It is this fragmented self, without an ability to recognize themselves as worthy, that subsequently becomes incapable of feeling themselves loved by God or by anyone.

The destruction of another person’s ability to love themselves renders them powerless. An abused person is denied participation in Jesus’ vision of the tripartite law of love, while abusers sentence themselves to self-hatred. Through the destruction of another human being’s self-love, aggressors forfeit their own worth, and try to obliterate God’s always offered embrace. The commandment is most clear: There are three loves linked here; when you destroy one, you destroy them all.

The amazingly good news Jesus brings is God’s predilection for mending what we break. The prodigal messes up, and yet, when there seems to be absolutely no love left, the broken one somehow remembers the offer of extravagant love and mercy and starts the journey home (Luke 15:11-32).

We’ve neglected our responsibility to not destroy the love of self in others and failed to be attentive to the consequences of this for too long. Most of our social sin feeds on this, not just sexism, but racism, xenophobia, classism, and the many ways we have devised to humiliate and dehumanize each other. It’s time we remember we’re loved, always, unconditionally, and begin the road to loving ourselves and our neighbors that will take us home.

Cecilia González-Andrieu is professor of Theology at Loyola Marymount University.

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