The meaning of “Loving thy neighbor as yourself”
Every other four years, give or take, the political system turns to address the needs of its voters. When we talk about politics we don’t usually refer to needs- the preferred terminology is interests or rights- and yet needs play an important role in the lives of both individuals and communities. Behind each and every action or objective lies the aspiration to fulfill basic needs that are shared by all humankind. Our wishes, aspirations, goals and interests all derive from our needs: We outlay our strategies- practical, emotional or mental- as a means to meet our needs. Unfulfilled needs cause people to feel frustrated, and impair their ability to realize their full potential. Society has a responsibility to ensure equal opportunity to all its citizens; therefore in principal each citizen has an equal opportunity to fulfill their basic human needs. In reality, as we know, powerful groups succeed in realizing their needs on the expense of others.
Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy of needs has become a well-known psychological concept. Researchers1 who followed up on his theoretical work now suggest a flat structure, where all basic human needs are of equal importance. Our numerous needs are categorized into four categories – survival, well-being, identity and freedom – and each and every person decides how to prioritize their needs from the highest to the lowest. When our needs are fulfilled we feel good, and vice versa. If we analyze what lies behind negative feelings or behaviors we’ll probably find unsatisfied needs- such as the need for recognition, control or authenticity2.
Conflicts are strongly related to the issue of basic human needs. Unsatisfied needs may evoke strong emotions and motivate the use of force in order to achieve their fulfillment. Soon a dichotomous point of view is created - of "Us" (the good guys) versus "Them" (the bad guys).The next stage is the self-justification to harm the other side in order to achieve my goals. Only when the anger or sense of being threatened have dissipated it is possible to see the other side as a human being, who just like me has basic needs. This other person experiences my actions, which damaged their ability to fulfill their needs, as violence turned against them. Often we think that conflicts are about clashing interests, but actually they are propelled by the frustration of hidden needs. Practically speaking, a sustainable solution to a conflict can be attained only when the basic human needs of all the sides involved are addressed. A peace agreement that denies the needs of a certain group might quickly dissolve into a renewed outbreak of aggression and violence.
As a matter of fact, some peace and conflict practitioners define non-violence as the commitment to achieve my goals without harming the needs of others. Unlike the competition for resources, the fulfillment of needs need not be exercised on the expense of anyone else: the need for security can be realized for all if we all take care of each other’s security; my identity can exist peacefully alongside yours. According to this definition, peace is a state in which everyone’s basic needs are fulfilled. The actual ability to recognize a variety of needs and assign them all an equal importance is already a significant step forwards in finding creative strategies to satisfy as many of these needs as possible.
The imperative of “loving thy neighbor as much as yourself” advocates paying attention to other people’s needs. The real challenge is taking this forward to the next level: When we realize that our objectives come at the expense of the needs of others, we must take responsibility and change them. That is the meaning of non-violence, and that is also the meaning of social justice. The beauty of this approach is the freedom it provides. While I can't deny someone's need, or force them to compromise about it, the ways to meet that need are varied and diverse. It is in our power to be flexible and creative in order to avoid doing to the other what is hatful to ourselves- following the rabbinical version of “the golden rule”. Maybe that is the true meaning of the scribe’s words in the book of Psalms: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (85, 11).
1. For instance John Burton, Edward Azar and Herbert Kelman.
2. See also the Non-Violent Communication approach, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, which is based among other things on identification of needs and emotions.