As our country, communities and world become increasingly broken, fragmented and divided how might we respond to the fear and violence, extreme poverty and prejudice, hot button issues and knee jerk reactions how are we to respond to the questions, challenges and crises we see? And for a community such as our, for those who worship this God of love and believe that we are called and commanded to be love, how might we respond in ways that are loving, just, helpful, and healthy?
In a courtroom in Soweto SA, a woman is facing down the very man who took her son nearly a decade earlier. She knows his face. This same man invaded their home a second time a few years later to take her husband in the middle of the night. Sometime later he came for her as well. Took her to a river bank where her husband lay dying for resisting apartheid; refusing to remain silent amid extreme violence, poverty, and prejudice; or yield to the temptation to compromise his conscience for the sake of his own safety, security and comfort. He gasps a final breath, utters three final words, “Forgive them Father,” and expires.
And now she sits there, across the room as the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation commission struggles to seek justice amid a long legacy of violence, prejudice, and fearful fragmentation. The judge interrupts her tear-filled silent stare, “He can’t harm you now. What is the justice you ask of the court?” She looks to the judge, then the prosecutor and into the eyes of the one who took the men she loved, stole her joy and brought so much pain into her life. They wait for her to find the words that will determine his fate.
Although an extreme example, the question we all face is still the same. How might we respond in love without perpetrating violence or remaining passively silent?
For me, this is the whole point of each of these stories, of story after story of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. God creates and it is good. God makes space and place for love and life to thrive. Out of love and in relationship God meets us where we are, lifts us up, blesses us, and shows us the way of love - well time and again at least tries to.
In Genesis, as in life this predictable pattern seems to repeat. We are challenged, God blesses. We are grateful, things go well until conflict or crisis, change or someone or something difference enters. And soon fear and anxiety confuse and as fear grows we use our power and presence not for love but to impose, contain and control. And we get Eden’s apple, Cain and Able, Babble’s tower, Noah's flood, and violence and silence, phobias and isms of all kinds.
The clouds rise up, storms rain down, and uncertainty creeps in. And then God says “never again,” and makes an eternal promise, a covenant, and a commitment to be with us, to love us, and show us the way to true love. God limits God’s self and puts this rainbow promise up in the sky.
You see? Love is more than a feeling, emotion or affection that is easily manipulated, earned, withheld or conditionally given. Love is an essential quality of who we are and how we are called to be in this world. And love chooses to limit oneself to ensure the conditions exist for love of another and life of others can thrive.
James Carse in Finite and Infinite Games says that “with very rare exception, people act in ways that they rationally believe they are serving the greater good.” Though well intentioned, even when we act in what we believe to be loving – when we intentionally or unintentionally impose our views, systems and schemes upon another we actually restrict, constrain and destroy the very conditions in which life and love can thrive, which means such “love” is in reality very UN-loving.
And so there is Jesus, somewhere on the journey, on this journey, on our journey. Yes he is taken and tested and tempted along the way. Yes he is challenged by the adversary. Yes he must face in his very human self the kinds of conflicts and challenges each of us will face on our journey.
Jesus is there immersed in the Jordon; water flows by, weary muscles find relief, dirt and dust are stripped away. As he emerges from out of the depths, the heavens rip open, Spirit descends and the voice cries out; “You, You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.”
Prepared in this way, nourished and assured of God’s love, Spirit whisks Jesus into the wildness of the world where he, like you and me, have what we need to face challenge, uncertainty and temptations. Temptations like using our presence and power to selfishly satisfy our own needs; to ensure our own comfort and safety and prove to others we are worthy; and to contain and control others through fear, violence or harmonies that stand silent to the cries of neighbors, strangers, or another.
Struggling to lead a movement to address the violence and prejudice in this country, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King summarized Jesus’ teachings and command to love this way, “power without love is reckless and abusive. And love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
The missing piece for many of us is to see that love, power and justice are inescapably linked.
And so she looks at the prosecutor, and then the judge and then on the very man who took from her the only family she ever knew. “I ask three things” she says: 1) that YOU know that I forgive you; 2) that I be permitted to adopt you as my son and we visit once a week that together we may become the family and express the kind of love that your violent acts tried to kill; and 3) that I may be allowed to hug you right now that you may know the true nature of the forgiveness my husband spoke of in his dying breath and experience for yourself the depths of this love whose power is greater than violence and fear.
You see, each choice we make, every crisis we encounter, all of our conflicts and challenges are invitations and opportunities to live life more fully, to use our power and our presence to be love and bring love and make love real.
To love as God loves is to overcome fear-based temptations and interrupt cycles of violence.
To love as God loves is to break convenient, comfortable silences.
To love as God loves is to commit to being present and journeying together amid uncertainty, fear, disappointment, mistakes, missteps and misunderstandings.
To love as God loves is to resist parroting sound bites and unreflective knee jerk reactions.
To love as God loves is to affirm and lift up another, bend power toward God’s justice, rise up and speak out against all forces, comfortable patterns and self-preserving systems that intentionally and unintentionally oppose, prevent, diminish or corrupt love.
In a world full of violence and fear, this is our time and our holy calling. To love one another as God loves us.
May God bless us on our journey.