By Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos, assistant to the president for mission integration at University of Detroit Mercy
Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk 12:31; Lev 19:18)
As I have been newly reflecting on what I read with attention through the lens of my identity as a woman, I found myself struck by the line from Mark’s Gospel regarding love of neighbor and self. I have always found that passage a bit disconcerting and have had to undertake some major mental gymnastics to make it fit both what I understood to be Jesus’s teachings and my own experience.
For much of my life, if I took the verse literally, it would have been all the worse for my neighbor. As a Filipina woman, I had long been conditioned to put the needs of others first, something that I have come to understand as the conditioning of most women around the globe. Yet, a quick perusal of literature that touches upon the experiences of Filipinas today—take, for example, literature about Filipina labor migration—underscores the fact that Filipinas continue to be strongly culturally conditioned to self-sacrifice at the expense of their own flourishing. Such conditioning has been aided by preaching in churches as much as it has been shaped by familial expectations. So, to love my neighbor as myself is to be largely inattentive to their needs. Surely this is not what Jesus meant.
For many women, even today, the text needs to read love yourself as you love your neighbor. Quite frankly, that is pretty much how I have been reading it for most of my life. That being stated, I bristle at the thought that somehow women have to mollify concern for neighbor in order to care for themselves. Instead, I want to suggest that two things need to happen to move closer to what Jesus intends for us all. Those of us who have been culturally conditioned to put love of neighbor ahead of attending to our needs may want to spend some time asking what it means to love one’s neighbor. In relationships where sacrifice and self-forgetfulness is one sided, is it genuinely loving not to challenge another to live up to the call to love your neighbor as yourself? Is it genuinely loving to let the selfishness, bullying or just simple self-centeredness that does not know how to attend to the needs of another persist in a person? Is it not loving to insist that another learn to see your needs as a way to liberate them from their selfishness?
To those whom cultures have consistently given privilege—whether because of gender, race, class, religion or sexual orientation—I read this passage as an invitation to work towards the relinquishing of unearned privileges so as to include those who have so long been excluded. Doing so is not only an act of loving neighbor but of loving self. The inclusion of a diversity of voices, of experiences and wisdom, of works and skills, benefits not only those who are finally able to shine light on the gifts they possess and bring, but also all those who have long allowed themselves to be deprived of these gifts by failing to attend to neighbors different from themselves.
I cannot help but feel that wisdom gained from lived experience on the underside is one of the gifts of attending to the charism of the Sisters of Mercy at a dually sponsored institution like the University of Detroit Mercy. While the international Society of Jesus returned to attending to those on the margins as integral to its educational project during the leadership of the late Father Pedro Arrupe, the Sisters of Mercy remained guided by a special concern for women and the poor.
There is a part of me that cannot but think that this should not be surprising for a community of women who have lived and arguably continue to live on the underside of a patriarchal Church. Catherine McAuley learned and taught that at the margins, among the most vulnerable, one can see the face of Christ. Experiences of being marginalized, underestimated and unseen and yet living, being and doing with dignity are a powerful resource for educating students for professional competence coupled with compassion and care.