Princeton University Religious Life

Love Thy Roommate

The Rev. Paul B. Raushenbush
Princeton University Chapel
September 13, 2009

It’s an exciting time at Princeton University. The future great class of 2013 is arriving and the campus is alive with new students eagerly finding their way around campus, trailed by parents, some of whom are slightly less than eager to leave their children behind. I wish I could say that it reminded me of when I first headed off to college, but when the time came for me to leave for school, my parents, who had already shepherded three older siblings to schools from Washington State to Massachusetts casually suggested I catch a ride with a friend. But putting my tragic life history aside, beginning college is a momentous occasion and we congratulate and welcome each new student. 

Major life transitions are often a very good time to consider who we are, and how we want to engage the world. This chapel and the office of religious life is committed to helping the entire Princeton community to respond to these existential and ethical questions. My colleagues Dean Boden, Dean Blanks and I would all agree that part of the central mission of our office is to promote the spiritual and ethical values that can be found in the great double commandment – to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.    Our work and hope is to create a caring and loving community at Princeton where we feel responsible to and for one another. And every day we are accepting new recruits in our effort!

The phrase “Loving your neighbor” is repeated so often in Christian, as well as secular, rhetoric that we are tempted to feel that it might not be such a big deal. “Oh yeah” Love your neighbor- got it” But loving our neighbor is not easy to understand or to do. In fact it may be the most difficult of all of the commandments.   For one thing it involves other people, and that is always tricky. And then it says that we must love them, and we aren’t really clear what love means when not talking about our spouse or immediate family.  Loving your neighbor is not self-explanatory at all, which is one of the reasons that Luke’s account of the great commandment is so helpful.    A lawyer asks what the greatest commandment is, and hearing Jesus’ response that we should love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves, the lawyer asks a clarifying question: Who is my neighbor? But he might as well also be asking: and how shall I love them? In response we get the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the story, two pious men pass to the other side of the road to avoid the beaten and robbed man, the Samaritan is moved and shows his love for his neighbor by going to help the man, to care for him, to cloth and house him. Loving our neighbor is not the stuff of theory, loving our neighbor requires concrete actions to specific people. 

As the biblical scholar William Klassen writes: In the synoptic Gospels Jesus speaks very seldom about the neighbor, and apart from the command to love enemies did not himself issue any command to love, or even use the word love with any frequency. Rather the neighbor is described concretely; tax collector, prostitute, victim of a robbery, debtor, woman threatened with divorce. Likewise the deed of love is concretely viewed and described; table fellowship, emergency aid, release from debt, healing…the double commandment and the commandment to love the enemy are variations on the theme of going beyond set limits, a theme enunciated by Jesus. unquote

The commandment involves a rigorous awareness of our self and other people and a commitment to extending ourselves to the other in ways large and small. And like everything else that yields worthwhile results, loving requires discipline and training and what better place to get into tip top ‘loving shape’ than here at Princeton? On this campus we have the opportunity to practice love in a variety of locations and with all sorts of peoples. Like they said about New York, if you can love your neighbor here you can do it anywhere.   One quick note for those who are no longer Princeton students, members of the faculty, and staff and community – while I am going to be referencing the specifics of student life on the Princeton campus, each of the locations I am going to talk about has its corollary out in what some call “the real world.”  So, listen up, this applies to all of us.

Ok, let’s talk about some ways to love your neighbor at Princeton.

Well, the opportunity has already started for you with your new roommate or roommates. Students at Princeton often say that they learn as much through conversations with their roommates than in any class they take. You will find that you have a lot in common with these people who are suddenly inhabiting the small space you call your room, but you also may be from different cultural, racial, religious, sexual orientation or geographical backgrounds. Loving your roommate involves caring enough about them to really know who they are, where they come from, what is important to them and why. You don't have to agree with them on everything, or even anything, but Jesus’ commandment requires caring even for those people with whom we might not normally associate.  As an extreme, Jesus even told us to love our enemies, so those who make you feel uncomfortable should be easier than that.

Take advantage of your close living proximity to learn about your new neighbor and respect them for their differences. Just as you want to be appreciated for who you are, practice loving your neighbor for who they are. Remember, we are all made in God’s image and so seek  some piece of the Divine in every person you meet. Some of the greatest roommate stories are from a group of completely different students who, even though they went on different paths in what they studied, and their primary social group, they still have a strong bonds from their first year or years as roommates.   

Of course, loving your neighbor involves more than just learning about them and respecting them. Loving involves caring. While college is often described as the best years of your life it can also be hard, as you and your classmates struggle with the pressure of social expectations and difficult classes. Loving your neighbor means noticing if your roommate is engaged in excessive drinking, eating problems or depression and helping them to get the help they need, even being willing to call them on their self destructive behavior – love can sometimes be tough. It is often easier to just look the other way, but that is not an act of love. The Samaritan didn’t see the man lying on the other side of the road and say – “Oh, I’m sure he will be fine.” He went to his aid and got him to the help he needed.

There are plenty of co-curricular activities at Princeton that will provide you with the opportunity to love your neighbor. Whether you are involved in sports, a religious group, the arts, student government or cultural clubs you can be that person who includes those who might feel out in the margins and be the one who has a kind word for everyone. You can provide a powerful loving center that holds the group together. You do not have to be elected a leader to do this, but the acts involved in loving your neighbor gives you a leadership role in any community.

Loving your neighbor extends beyond your dorm room and into the classroom. Even if you are entering college knowing you want to major in a certain subject, be open to the possibility of falling in love with literary characters, historical figures or current peoples across the globe whose lives have something to teach you about how to live your own. With loving your neighbor as a guiding principle, your studies will gain a sense of purpose. Consider how to harness the knowledge you are acquiring in service of the common good of all the world's neighbors.  Loving your neighbors often means using the power of your knowledge on behalf of others – your technical, artistic, and political knowledge can save another person’s life. Your learning and your vocation can be intricately tied into the act of love.

Every university offers opportunities for service to the wider community in which the college is situated. Some of the freshman class just spent a week in Community Action and so you known the needs of our local community. The Student Volunteers Council encourages students to tutor local school children, play piano for senor citizens, and work in soup kitchens – caring for other’s immediate needs is well exemplified in the story of the Good Samaritan. But loving our neighbor can also be taking an activist stance towards injustice. If the attacks kept coming on that road to Jericho, the next step would be to organize to stop them. All of us can be active in learning systematic ways that people are pushed under and work to change the system. Loving your neighbors who live outside of the college grounds will give you some much needed sense of perspective that transcends your grades and social network and will give you satisfaction as you are offering your service to others.  

These are just a few of the concrete definitions of who your neighbor is and how you might love them here at Princeton.     But what if you just get too busy to love your neighbor? It happens you know. We rush around from one appointment to the next and in our hurrying we can miss the opportunities to love. Some of you know of the famous study carried out at Princeton Theological Seminary where students were told to make sure they were on time for an appointment in a building across campus to talk about their vocations. Some of the students were forced to rush to make the next appointment while others were given more time. On top of that, some seminarians in each group were going to the next meeting to discuss the implications of the Good Samaritan story, while others were not. All were confronted en route to the appointment with an actor who was realistically portraying a man in serious distress.   Less than half stopped to help the man who lay in their path and the main variable that designated those who stopped was not those who had the good Samaritan on their mind, it was those who were in less of a hurry.

One of the refrains you will quickly learn at Princeton, if you don’t know it already is “oh, I am soooo busy.” It is almost suspect if you are not in a rush. But in order to practice the loving of your neighbor at Princeton you have to make time to calm yourself and create opportunities for spontaneous acts of love. Try not to be in such a rush that you miss the beautiful campus, and even more important the beautiful people who in habit it. 

This brings me to one more point. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is especially interesting as it indicates that caring for ourselves is also important. Not narcissistically, or vainly, but really caring for our own well being physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And it is so important that you do this. Sleep when you are tired, eat when you are hungry, pray and mediate when you feel off center. Be as loving and forgiving to yourself as you are towards others.   

Finally, I encourage all of us to consider the commandment to love our neighbor as a religious and spiritual exercise that will deepen our love for God and for Jesus. We are tempted to think of the double commandments as sequential – you love God with all your heart, and then you love your neighbor as yourself. But it is possible that the action can happen in reverse. Through our intentional and consistent awareness of others and our willingness to offer concrete acts of love in their service, we can find that our knowledge and reverence for God increases. The Bible asks the question, how can you say you love God whom you have not seen, when you do not love your neighbor who you do see.

The word for love that Jesus uses is agape and the word implies charity and sacrifice for one another. Each small sacrifice we make for one another places us in communion with Jesus and his sacrifice for all of humanity. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John before his own crucifixion:  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 

There is nobility in this work of sacrificial love. Loving your neighbor is not a small ethical exercise but rather a grand endeavor worth living, and even dying for. We find salvation for ourselves as we offer ourselves to others. We become co-creators of God’s community on this earth as in heaven.  So, welcome to Princeton. May you find great wisdom and joy in this place and may your great work of love begin today.   


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