In Part 1 we considered the idea that serving love above all other things can sometimes lead us to break laws and ethical standards. This idea begs us to further consider what principles we can use to help bridge the gap between the ineffable mystery of love and the concrete reality of this world.
Non-Judgment and Equality
Peter’s example in Caesarea clearly shows us that our role is not to judge people, at least not according to a literal reading of laws written for a specific culture thousands of years ago. So if even the “Rock” would not judge another person’s purity or cleanliness, even with the backing of scriptural law, then who is any of us to do so? Once Peter managed to pass through this test and let go of the temptation to judge in that particular way, we see his actions showing us an interconnected principle that is just as much a sign and symptom of love – he welcomed Cornelius, a Gentile, as an equal. He refused to allow Cornelius to kneel before him and said, “Stand up. I am only a man myself.” (Acts 10:26) It is also important to understand that this position of non-judgment of another person’s worthiness of love is not taken with the disclaimers so popular among modern evangelicals, like “for all have sinned and fallen short,” or “hate the sin and not the sinner”, but the declaration that God does not play favorites. If Peter felt called to recognize and love a Gentile as an equal before God, and did so in a time when the legalized taboos and consequences make ours look tiny by comparison, then who are we not to recognize and love others we might be tempted to judge as sinful, impure or unclean?
I suspect the progression of the law of love over the written law, with all its cultural limitations and prejudices, was at least part of what Jesus had in mind when he told the Apostles they would do even greater things than he had done. It could be argued that the most pervasive influence of the Christian spirit on the evolution of Western society and government, and often despite the Church’s own institutionalized prejudice, has been the continuation of that progression toward recognizing the equality of each person, protecting that equality, and providing for each person’s basic well being. Even so, in each societal shift the Church has experienced the call of radical love in conflict with Bible-based fears about the supposed sanctioning of sin. Worse yet, those religious arguments were, and still are, used by some individuals and groups as justifications for threats, violence, and heinous acts of terror in the name of Christ. Thankfully, however, radical love has led most of the Western world to let go of conventions like slavery, Jim Crow laws, the oppression of indigenous peoples, prohibitions on interracial marriage, and restraints on the rights of women. Today the vast majority of Christians consider those injustices as contrary to the spirit of Christ’s love, though it seems to me that many of us are nonetheless still repeating the pattern with regard to other issues, including sexual orientation, gender identity and economic status.
Answering Legal and Moral Problems
Why would we adhere to laws and ethical standards that are out of their time and cultural context rather than answer the call for a more expansive and inclusive expression of love? It’s my conviction that the basic problem is fear, in part because we have been taught the fear of God is the beginning of knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7) From that staring place, I suggest our pattern of prejudice is further based on the fearful belief that God does play favorites, and so upon the fearful hope that we can win a place among the favored. Unfortunately, there are lots of scriptural passages that can be used to support such attitudes, which in turn seem to justify arrogantly judging others’ worthiness to be treated as equals, and then being insensitive and cruel to those considered unequal. There is also the ordinary human fear of change, and especially of letting go of traditions that have benefited oneself even though it has been at the unfair expense of others. Aside from these factors, there is also the perfectly reasonable fear of living in a chaotic world without rules to help settle differences on what is relatively good and right in particular situations.
There is a real need for written laws and ethical standards but, in order to not be limited to fear as our only legal and moral guide, we also need our laws and ethics to be subject to the evolving wisdom of love – otherwise we risk them becoming rigid spiritless idols of prejudice and tyranny. This need is one reason legal and ethical systems have developed that permit changes in our understandings, and even the amendment or elimination of rules that we discern are no longer adequate. But how can we come to know the evolving wisdom of love so that we may express it more fully? For Christian mystics the answer begins with turning inward to realize our union with Christ, the Logos, the Light of Universal Reason, and thus with God, Love itself. That union then achieves both wider and deeper realization through honoring every human soul’s essential connection with Love, and thus with each other. This great work is what best enables us to judge in the only way that I believe we are truly called to do. In practical terms, our calling is to always respond to life’s problems by trying to discern how the Spirit moves us to answer this question: What is the most loving thing to do? To have that intention as our prayer, our principal ethic and our mission, combined with the understanding that different people may come to different answers, is to have an inner guide to radical love, the kind of love Jesus actually lived and charged us to progressively spread beyond all prejudicial boundaries, no matter how sacrosanct they may seem to be.