Jesus says that the greatest commandments are to love God with everything that you are, and to love your neighbour as yourself. In response to a question about ‘who’ our true neighbours are, he shares a story about a man on a journey far from home who is beaten up and left for dead. His compatriots walk on the other side of the road, but someone from another, distrusted and strange land comes and takes care of him.
Søren Kierkegaard reflects on these stories and observes how humans like to abstract these commands to suit us better. We think our neighbours are those who look and sound like us as much as possible – this is the impulse of patriotism or love of country. But I have never been to Middleborough, Lincoln, or Dundee and while these people might be my compatriots, they are not really my neighbours – to some extent my love for them is an abstraction from reality. For Kierkegaard, ‘The very first person you meet is the neighbour, whom you shall love… There is not a single person in the whole world who is as surely and as easily recognised as the neighbour.’ In this regard, Kierkegaard suggests, Christian loyalty and love is more appropriately applied to a neighbourhood, town or city than it is to a nation or country (this essay by Stephen Backhouse explains more on this with reference to Kierkegaard).
The people I meet every day, walking around the streets of Liverpool are my neighbours and as such I am commanded as a follower of Jesus to love them. This love of God has not only helped me fall in love with a city I once did not know, but even transform something as ingrained as football rivalry. The most fundamental and formative songs I sing are about Jesus, not of a city and the narrative I try and organise my life around is found in the Bible not the history of a city or football club. But we are embodied creatures, and God creates us in and calls us to particular places, where we live, breathe and encounter our neighbours. I don’t think I’d go as far as saying I have become a Liverpool fan! I would still want Liverpool to lose if they played Bristol City and Man Utd, but the God who is able to transform even the deepest hatred into love has softened the heart of this southern, middle-class boy into a love of his new city, its people and perhaps even one of its football teams I once intensely disliked.