In an article in The New York Times (June 7, 2016), ‘Let’s Have a Better Culture War’, David Brooks remarks that we need ‘a new traditionalism’ in the way we look at current issues. Commenting that ‘we are not primarily physical creatures,’ he says, ‘we have souls or consciousness or whatever you want to call it. The first step of a new traditionalism would be to put the spiritual and moral implications of everyday life front and center’.
His solution is to point us to the motif of ‘love’. For ‘love’ he says, ‘is the elemental desire of the spirit’.
There is nothing new in this. Back in 1965 Burt Bacharach put to music the Hal David lyrics, What the World needs now is Love Sweet Love; and in 1967 the Beatles sang, All you need is love… The question becomes: ‘What does love mean? What does this look like in practice?’
At the center of Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (Luke 6:27-36), is the theme of love. Our English word love translates a number of Greek words – words for ‘affection’, for ‘romantic love’ (eros), and for ‘friendship’ (philia). And there is one more, the word that Jesus uses: agape – which means a love that chooses to act in the best interests of the one who is loved.
It is not a response to the attractive, but the reverse: it chooses to serve the best interests of even the unlovely, the unworthy, no matter the cost. It is not a love that responds to someone who is worthy of merit. It is the deliberate decision to serve the very best interests of others. It is the word the Bible uses to speak of the unique love of God and, in turn the love we are to have for one another – including love in marriage.
We understand love only when we understand God’s righteous character. This is why, for example, God cannot simply forgive us. As 1 John 4:10 says: here then is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Our western world has come to think of love more in terms of eros. Certainly not agape. Eros wants to take. Agape wants to give for the best of others. Eros could not have saved us. Agape could and did.
LOVE IN ACTION
Jesus teaches anyone who would follow him to: “Love (agape) your enemies” (6:27).
Moses had commanded, love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). In Jesus’ day the Jewish leaders had narrowed the application of neighbor so that it only referred to people who shared similar religious views. It did not include enemies. Jesus went further and said that his followers cannot be selective about whom they love.
To love one’s enemies is an uncompromising call not to retaliate in kind, but to pray and do good. Doing good means being willing to forego personal ‘rights’ and being prepared to be vulnerable and ‘go the extra mile’. It was a challenge to Jesus’ hearers in Roman occupied Judea; it is a challenge to us today.
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek,” Jesus continues, “Offer the other cheek as well” (6:29). The image is of a humiliating slap across the face with the back of the hand – an abuse of power. In those moments when we are being ridiculed or persecuted for our faith and for doing the right thing, we often want to respond in kind. But Jesus says we are not to retaliate.
Indeed to retaliate in kind only compounds the evil. Rather, offer support and even minister to those who persecute you. Revenge is out of the question. Leon Morris in his commentary on Luke notes the advice of ‘a worldly wit: Always forgive your enemies. Nothing infuriates them more’.
LOVE IN SERVICE TO OTHERS
Consider the witness of people imprisoned for their faith in their service of others during World War II. The Ten Boom family in Holland facilitated the escape of hundreds of Jewish people from the Nazi holocaust; they themselves were sent to concentration camps where they bore witness to their faith.
Vulnerability and forgiveness, rather than revenge, are to be our response to injustice and religious persecution.
Isn’t it more than time we re-visited and began to practice these profound, counter-cultural words of Jesus?
© John G. Mason