Baroness Thatcher was a ‘devout Christian’, according to Dr Eliza Filby, author of God and Mrs Thatcher. She regularly attended the parish church at Chequers, regarded the life of Jesus as exemplary, and drew on the Bible to support her political values.
I will not call into question the sincerity of Baroness Thatcher’s faith. But I will, however, comment on one rather glaring (mis)understanding of the teaching of Scripture.
As reported in Christianity magazine (June 2013), Filby says says that in the early 1980s the text “Love thy neighbour” was often appealed to in support of the welfare state. Thatcher’s response was, “No, it’s not ‘love thy neighbour’, it’s ‘love thy neighbour as thyself”.” Her point was that self-regard is the basis of concern for others; we have to take care of ourselves before we can fulfill our obligations to others. The practical implication of this was to put the brakes on the welfare state.
Whatever might be the merits of this as politics, as an understanding of the Bible text itself it’s not very good. It is rather surprising, then, to find so eminent a biblical scholar as Scott McKnight repeating the same idea, with reference to Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:-
(The Story of God Bible Commentary, on The Sermon on the Mount)
As James Edwards (in his commentary on Romans 13:9) says, this doctrine of self-love ‘owes more to self-help psychology than to biblical theology.’ There are numerous commands in Scripture to love God and our neighbour, but none to love ourselves.
The command to “Love your neighbour as yourself” is found in Leviticus 19:18, and repeated (or, at least, referred to) in Mt 5:43; 19:19; 22:39; Mk 12:31,33; Lk 10:27; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8 (some of these are parallels). In none of these instances is any elaboration given of the expression ‘as yourself’. All we can say is that self-love is assumed. We cannot say that it is encouraged, still less demanded. Moreover, Lev 19:18 ends with the statement, “For I am the Lord”, which directs attention away from ourselves and towards God.
What the command is saying, then, is that we are to love our neighbour in the same way that we do, in fact, love ourselves. Given that we habitually love ourselves by putting ourselves and our wants and needs first, we could say that this commandment is urging us to put our neighbour (and her wants and needs) first. That isn’t to say that we should cultivate self-loathing. But it is to say that Margaret Thatcher got her biblical interpretation wrong on this occasion. She’s not alone in that, of course. But in her case it did have rather serious consequences.