"Who does God want me to love most?"... this is a question that I have encountered in multiple ways. I remember a Bible study where one individuals adamantly felt that since the verse reads "Love your neighbor as yourself" that love of neighbor must come first because "neighbor" is first in the sentence. I also have come across, and find great value in, liberation theologies that recognize the intimate relationship between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of current victims of oppression and injustice. Recently a friend sent me this article by Fred Clark advocating that the priority of our compassion should be towards the victims of oppression until such time that justice has occurred. These theologies are an understandable reaction to the inherently bad theologies that perpetuate victimization in the name of celestial rewards.
I do not think, however, that these are the only two options on the table. I do not think I am limited to a choice between theologies that ignore the dignity of the oppressed in the name of a future heavenly kingdom or theologies that ignore the dignity of the oppressor in the name of exceptionally important issues of social justice. I believe there must be another path to walk.
I think about my personal wrestling with "loving my neighbor as myself". I have had to do a lot of work on loving myself. To this day I battle with issues of shame and self worth. I also can get caught up in my own thoughts and my own vision and ignore the needs of others. To this day I battle with issues of slowing down and hearing and integrating the experience of others into how I see the world. I believe I am called into a path that will always have me reflecting and balancing with only the occasional graceful moment along this tight rope.
I have wrestled with this in my Bible readings for quite some time. The issue is that I found myself constantly encountering biblical passages used by both traditions, often they are used well if quite differently. I often could not readily differentiate where reading into the text ended and reading from the text began. At some point I found myself putting down the Bible and looking to my tradition for possible clarity. As an Episcopalian this meant that I began to flip the onion skin paper of the Book of Common Prayer.
Where I found myself was balancing the Baptismal Covenant (p 305), the Examination of Deacons (p 543), and the Examination of Priests (p 531). I think that in these four liturgical spaces the church has expressed its theology around this question rather clearly. I am not looking at these in the context of "this is what Lay People do", "this is what Deacons do", and "this is what Priest do"; I will even put forward that such separation is inherently problematic. I do put forward that these are the places where we present how we nuance the situation and recognize that some individuals are called to live into certain nuances more than others for the sake of the whole.
The core statement, by default, is the Baptismal Covenant. The ordination examinations are simply two highly limited methods of working out a life of ministry in the context of the Baptismal Covenant. The last question and answer of the Covenant is:
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will with God's help.
I think that at this point the ground is pretty clear. I can neither ignore issues of social injustice nor can I fail to have compassion for and recognize the dignity of every human being. Every human being means everyone, regardless of where that individual is in the midst of issues of social injustice.
This is then reiterated in the Priestly Examination. In the examination for priests the candidate is must be able to affirm a call "to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor". That word alike is pivotal. Priests are called to preach by action a loving and serving of all individuals regardless of age, wealth, or power. They are called to lead others to similar lives of love and service by such example.
The trap here, the obvious and overwhelming trap, is how do we not allow those with power and wealth hold us captive. This can easily happen casually with no maliciousness or ill intent by those with wealth and power. It is how the system works. The answer is Deacons. Deacons live into the ministry that points out the trap, springs the trap, and gets us out of the trap when we fall into it. In the examination for deacons the candidate must be able to affirm the call "to serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely". Here there is a particular interest on the victims and those facing oppression. This particularity is, however, still in the midst of service to all people. I would suggest that this nuance comes from an understanding that service to those oppressed and victimized by society that does not serve all people in society cannot, in the end, bring about holistic and systematic change of society.
The Deaconal nuance is what keeps our Baptismal call "to respect the dignity of every human being" real. It is what ensures that we do not give this vital section of our Baptismal Covenant lip service but truly calls us to ensure that we are not blind to the needs of another in the midst of whatever our particular wealth and power might be. It is the examination and vow all priests take first to ensure that they do indeed "love and serve... alike" by having a service to all people that remembers the particularity of "the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely". It is the requisite work of Deacons to constantly call out the entirety of the church, from the individual to the whole pragmatic structure, to the needs of those who are oppressed and victimized. It is all, however, so that the vital work of the Church, primarily in the hands of the laity, can be work that strives "for justice and peace among all people" and respects "the dignity of every human being" regardless of where they are in the structures of the world.
This is, I think, all a call, a striving, to see each other with God's vision. A remembering that Jesus lived, died, and rose again for no one individual before all individuals. A knowledge that the Love of God that we live into cannot be quantified, measured, or looked at as a form of capital.