God is love and we, as Christians, are known by it (First John 4.16). It is God’s character and our expected response for we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4.15). It is the principle identifier, proof that we are not only in a relationship with but related to God—not abilities, culture, education, gifts, social status or wealth. It is not proven by church attendance or even committee participation. Because the Christian life is more than showing up and doing. Our Christian faith is about being—being and behaving as the body of Christ.
The apostle Paul reminds us that none of these external markers matter anyway. Often used at weddings and referred to as the love chapter, First Corinthians 13, along with Psalm 23, are the most recognizable, often quoted but poorly practiced truths of Scripture. There are portions that read like the job description of love but how many of us apply it to our lives when it matters and is needed most? And John is crystal clear that this is not an easy kind of love. He writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. … Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (First John 4.18, 20-21, NRSV).
It is against God’s law to hate. You shall have no other gods. You shall not steal. You shall kill. You shall not hate.
John says this is not about warm and fuzzy feelings. This is not a matter of sharing a smile but in the suffering of our siblings. He writes, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (First John 3.18, NRSV). Because it is not enough to say that we are Christians, to suggest that our identity speaks for itself and requires no action. God forbid.
What purpose does the Church’s mouth serve if it does not speak to injustice? And if the Church cannot say, “God is love” when hatred is expressed in Charlottesville, Virginia or closer to home, then what are we talking about? Because hatred is not foreign, a product shipped in or smuggled across borders. Hatred is personal, local and homegrown. And the Church has often made is sacred. The Church in North America has hated “in Jesus’ name.”
I find that it is easier to talk about the God of love but what are we to say about the people who hate and closer still, the people we hate? The Unite the Right rally that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia should remind the Church that we have work to do. Anxiety, discomfort and ignorance are not valid excuses to not attend to the matter. We cannot stay in the nurse’s office because this wound will not heal without us.
But, before we attempt to teach others, we have our own homework to do. Let the words of Howard Thurman serve as the introduction to this course. He writes in Jesus and the Disinherited:
Christianity has been almost sentimental in its effort to deal with hatred in human life. It has sought to get rid of hatreds by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments. It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred and to evaluate it in terms of its possible significance in the lives of the people possessed by it. The reluctance to examine hatred has taken on the character of a superstition. It is a subject that is taboo unless there is some extraordinary social crisis—such as war—involving the mobilization of all the national resources of the common life to meet it. There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and meaning.”
Howard Thurman penned these truths in 1976. Clearly, we have a lot of homework to do.