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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.
There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:
“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isn’t very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)
In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:
“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life’s dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)
Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)
The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:
“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying ‘peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)
I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week before we end. I’ll share that next.