I was brought up in the American nation, and I was brought up in the Christian faith. And I quickly learned the two lessons you are supposed to learn growing up in those two traditions. They are not hard lessons to grasp; my five year-old son can do it:
1) A follower of Christ loves God’s people (that means “people,” by the way. Not “people I approve of,” or “my co-religionists.”)
2) Americans, and all people, are of right and should be free.
Now that is very, very simple, and I find it incredible, really, that American Christians seem to have lost our way on what really should be the very beginning of Christ’s teaching here. This week I see examples of that failure all around us. Who could possibly miss them? The Church, no less than the nation, has erupted into rage and outrage, cries and outcries. We see outward condemnation and smug self-righteousness everywhere. So maybe we have to go back to two very simple points, one about love and one about freedom:
Point 1: If you will not love a person that you can love, then you are doing evil.
I will not backtrack on this statement, though I know a lot of people will want to call me on it. They are going to say that I have no right to tell them to love. They will say that they cannot love anymore. They are going to say that they will love once they have justice.
Well, the first one is right on; I do not have the right to tell anyone to love. I can only point to Christ, who does have that right because he earned it in the only way that kind of right can be earned: by showing just how far his love would go, and He took it very far indeed. As for those who truly cannot love anymore, I will not judge them, but I will say that if you truly cannot love, then you are as close to powerless as a human being can be. The power of a human soul is nothing other than the power to love, and if that has been taken from you, then I can only counsel that you try to do no harm and pray for God to change you. But the idea that you are going to love only when you have justice, or worse, freedom, is truly a perversion. For one thing, it creates the terrible delusion that justice could ever be anything other than love. And this, of course, is what the protests in Ferguson, in New York, and in Cleveland have got to be about, or they are nothing but bloodlust.
Justice is about restitution, both to the person injured, and to the one who has done the injury. We may do harm to the offender, but it is in the name of (at best) turning him or her from an offender back into a free citizen. At worst it is about stopping him or her from injuring others, because we cannot do what is best.
Now if these protests are about anything meaningful, they are about the perception that White America does not love Black Americans. That we are more interested in doing what is worst: controlling, suppressing, and eliminating them than we are in taking the risk involved in doing what is best, and relating to them like we would to other human beings with different skin colors and voices and cultures. And love entails taking risks just as surely as justice entails love. Law enforcement should understand this more than anyone, and while I don’t want to dump on the police here, who face a lot of risk daily over the dumbest things imaginable, the fact of the matter is that the very reason we respect the police is because they are willing to take risks. They signed up for the awful privilege of taking those risks, not because they are good at avoiding them. And that does mean putting themselves in harm’s way to avoid killing.
But likewise, when we demand justice from the police and from the state, we must remember that the police and the state are in the end human constructs of human beings. Society itself is nothing more than individual human beings.
Now, if our goal is to engage that society with the hope of changing it for the better, then it must be in love. Either that, or we might as well go all the way and admit that we do not want to better our society or our neighbors, that we are two societies at war, and start fighting in earnest, so that the horror of it might be spilled out, and show the survivors how not to do it.
But if our goal is to be free and claim power for ourselves, then it is even more vital that we love. When we fight, do we not fight for the right to be safe enough to love our families and our friends? And when the “enemy” whoever it is, has been defeated, how then do we treat our families? Which of my readers has never been involved in the terrible wars that families wage, or the bitterness of broken friendship?
This is the terrible and painful truth: If we will not claim the power to love our enemies, we will never be able to love anyone as we must. We cannot pretend that the injustice done to us gives us some “right” to withhold love, or justice, from our oppressors, as if that were a strength. It is a false strength. Which brings me to my second point:
Point 2: If you cannot love until you have a thing, you are a slave to that thing.
When you deny that you can love, because you have not received enough justice, or enough safety, or enough equal treatment, or enough respect, you are effectively ruled by that thing that others have the ability to deny you. And yes, you can really be ruled by that thing. It would be stupid for a man held at gunpoint to pretend there is no gun. I am not one to recommend non-violence in all situations. Hold a weapon on me, or God help you, one of my children, and you will see what violence I can do.
And I do have sympathy (for reasons I will not go into here) for those who find it difficult to get out of that type of thinking. Who really have been traumatized to the point where they have difficulty believing they can ever really be out of danger. It takes for them great courage to love. It is not their fault that they have been wounded. But this is not really about fault. This is about healing, and all healing requires the act of courage, at the last, to say to oneself, “I will go out into the world that has hurt me, even though the danger is not past, and live again.” Anyone who cannot do this is not really healed, but wounded. Anyone who is wounded is not really strong yet.
We have accepted a lie in this nation, which is that strength is the ability to take what we want by force, and ignore our enemies. This is a powerful illusion, but it ends up with us treating everyone like an enemy, and being the slaves of our wants: safety, respect, and possessions, and even freedom itself. Only when we learn to love like followers of Christ will we be truly free.