Unconditional love. It sounds holy, right and just. It is a concept embraced throughout the millennia, but with conditions. The struggle seems to come when the concept is applied to those with whom we differ, those we judge as unworthy, those we look down upon, and those we have decided it is impossible for God to love. Many within the Christian faith find the thought of loving those whom they hate reprehensible and repellant. Each “I” is deserving of unconditional love; “you, they, them” not so much. The trigger for this reflection was a group of men sitting around a table, each with a Bible open in front of them, talking about Islamic terrorists, and the phrases, “scum-buckets, rabid animals, towel-heads, low-lifes, and torture-is-too-good-for-them,” bubbled up from their conversation. As I eavesdropped on their tirade — it was very easy, they were talking REALLY LOUD — not once did words such as “forgiveness, mercy, grace, tolerance, justice or healing” emerge. It put me in mind of a situation in my own life in the late 1990s.
I was asked to deliver the message at an Interfaith service in Nashville, Tennessee. The message was “What We Have in Common,” and the premise was that while we have thousands of differences to fight about, we all have the choice to set differences aside and focus instead on those things we all value. The gist of the sermon was what we might be able to accomplish if we put our hearts, minds, souls and strength together and committed to creating something positive and productive. If it is possible to identify values and principles we share in common, we could unleash almost unlimited potential for good. Not everyone loved the concept. The morning after the service I went out to my car to find it had been spray-painted with epithets questioning my sexuality and making assumptions about the activities I engage in were such an allegation true. The culprits were captured — a 54 year-old woman and her 30 year-old son, who had attended the service, and who belonged to a mega-church whose core-values included the right to hate whomsoever they chose. When I asked the woman what motivated her to vandalize my car, she replied, “You told us to love sinners and that means you hate God.” She paused. “That means you’re probably one of THEM.” I didn’t press for clarification. It was crystal clear that this woman was being taught and supported a “malspel” (bad news) of venom and hate — in her church!
What is so threatening to some Christians — Christians, mind you, not some heathen non-believers we wish to rescue and convert — about the concept of love? How does loving someone in any way diminish or endanger the lover? And why is it so offensive to believe that God loves someone you dislike as much as God likes you? Do we actually believe that love is a limited resource, and if the wrong people get it there won’t be any left for us? I remember a gentleman elected to General Conference in 2012 standing on the floor and declaring that a) not everyone is created in the image of God, b) not every person on earth is a child of God, and c) there are many people on this earth who will never know the love of God. Some large body of someones actually elected a delegate to General Conference holding such beliefs.
The best explanation I have for people holding such hostile and hurtful opinions of God is that we have generally lost our capacity for humility. Lawrence Kushner writes in his book, God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know, “Humility is not being in the presence of people who are better than we are, but simply being in the presence of people, any people, for they are all as unique as we are. Humility commences with the realization that no one is inferior or superior to anyone else. This fundamental egalitarianism then matures into a willingness to give of oneself to another.” Many modern-day Christians in the United States simply don’t get, believe, or agree with this. Humility is for losers. Humility means we’re not the greatest — that our interpretation of scripture is not THE interpretation of scripture, that our Jesus doesn’t bleed red, white, and blue, and that everyone else on this planet deserves every bit as much as we do to be housed, clothed, fed, well, safe and protected. We often seem to have a really hard time allowing that others deserve as much as we do. And once we judge someone undeserving, we are deeply offended if they receive comfort and care. The idea that God might love someone we hate is outrageous.
Another cultural problem we face is that we have turned love into a feeling and a commodity. Love as a feeling alleviates our responsibility to love — if I’m not feelin’ it, I don’t have to do anything. But the kind of love we are talking about is a fruit of the Spirit of God, and fruit is meant to feed people. If we aren’t treating love as a verb, an action, we’re missing the point. We are called to love one another because God IS love. Love is something we cannot help doing because the moment Christ has anything to do with us, we are changed — we become God’s love for the world. This, I believe, is Jesus’ point in Matthew 25 — unless we are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, providing health care for the sick and needy, visiting the prisoners, we aren’t loving God. Our love of God has one simple, clear, outward and visible sign — how we treat others here on earth. We are not simply called to love those who are lovable. We are charged to love our enemies. We do not have the luxury of choosing who to love. Once Christ is truly in us, “they will know we are Christians by our love.” We will love our neighbor as we love ourselves (and those we love best), not by choice — choice no longer factors in when we give ourselves over to Christ. Unconditional love is unconditional for this very reason — it is the nature and being of God and where God is, love is, and there is no possibility for hate, contempt, judgment, persecution, oppression, ostracism or violence. Love does not allow these things power. Love is bigger than all these things, a more excellent way to live our giftedness in the world. This love is not namby-pamby, letting people get away with anything, whether they “deserve” it or not. This love is the transformative ground of being that defines our reality. We are all IN the love of God; all that we control is our own gratitude and behavior.
Love is not a commodity. Commodities are exchanged. Commodities are bought and sold. Commodities are things, objects, artifacts. When we trade in love, we dishonor God and we prove that God truly has no place in us. This calls for repentance. This calls us to ask forgiveness for our arrogance, our hubris, our conceit, our pettiness and our lacks of compassion, mercy and kindness. Love is a gift, but not so small or tangible that we can get our hands (or our heads) around it. It is the energy field in which we exist as Christians, the air we breathe, the ethos we engage, and the reality of faith. It is the medium upon which the Holy
Spirit travels (where love is, God is). And the truly brilliant and wonderful thing is, once a heart is truly given to God, love is endless and to love any other child of God on this planet costs us nothing, causes no resentment or sense of loss, does not trigger indignation or contempt, and doesn’t even confront us on a conscious level. We are no longer love dispensers — we are simply lovers, doing what God wills us and calls us to do.