Feb 202011

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.

Feb 132011
This post is a significant revision of a note written for my Facebook page in 2009. I retitled it “Radical Love”, and have since found there are books with the same title.  This post does not reference any works by this title.

Imagine what it would be like to be taught from infancy that God wants to be feared, gets violently jealous and angry, hates a specific list of behaviors, severely punishes the people who do them, and expects us to reflect these same attitudes and actions with each other.  Imagine you have also been taught that all these things have been literally dictated by God into a single book of lore and laws revered for thousands of years as the supreme encapsulation of absolute and unchanging Truth.  Well, for many of us Christians that’s not hard to imagine because it’s so close to the way we were raised.  Now imagine how you would feel when the most scripturally literate, charismatic and miraculous person you’ve ever met also speaks and acts in ways that violate those laws, and even claims a divine right to do so!  I think this is what it was like for the Apostles and others of their time to be in the presence of Jesus.

A Radical Idea: Breaking the Law in Order to Fulfill It

Scriptural laws, such as the Levitical laws, were deeply established as the basis of the Apostles’ world; the law dominated their identity as a culture, as families, and as individuals.  But Jesus shook things up with a radical teaching about a relationship with God and other human beings that was chiefly based on trusting God’s limitless love and listening to God’s Living Word spoken in our hearts, rather than uncritically obeying the words spoken by religious authorities or written in a book, even the Bible.  This devotion to love as the primary arbiter of righteousness and morality is what enabled Jesus to break the letter of the law in order to best serve its spirit, which I think is part of what he meant by “fulfilling the law” (Matthew 5:17).  His teaching did not set aside the Bible, but clearly placed it beneath loving God with all one’s heart, mind and strength, and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40).

To me, the Good News that God is infinitely loving, combined with the Great Commandments, is the essential formula of Christian life whether we call it mystical or not.  But as inspiring as many people have found it, to countless religious authorities and devout people of Jesus’ time that message was unacceptably threatening, just as it seems with many of us Christians today.  Yet the Apostles were close enough to Jesus to see the Divine Light, the Logos, shining through him even, and perhaps especially, when he repeatedly violated the law in fulfilling the higher law of love.  They constantly had to face tough questions about how far they should go in putting love above and beyond the laws that defined their very lives and, in fact, threatened their lives if they went too far.

If you have read the Acts of the Apostles, you know that after the death of Jesus this issue came to a head and they were deeply troubled by it.  Specifically, there was concern among them about who was and was not worthy of Christian love, and how that love could be properly expressed.  Could someone who was not Jewish be considered a sibling in Christ?  After all, those who weren’t Jewish didn’t practice all the purity codes prescribed by the Bible and Jewish tradition.  It was seriously risky to freely socialize with “impure” people, to eat with them, to touch them, let alone baptize them and treat them as beloved family members.

One of the most crucial moments of transformation on this issue is recorded in Acts, chapter 10.  Peter, the “Rock” of the Apostles, had two visions that led him to say:

God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. … I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…. (Acts 10:28, 34)

This realization is echoed in Romans 2:11, showing from that point forward the Apostles became more inclusive with their ministry, freely violating laws in the process.  It seems obvious to me that they were beginning an ever-expanding expression, a progression,  of Jesus’ teaching to put love above all other considerations. The lives of Jesus and the Apostles illustrate that Christian life is meant to be a vital, growing, evolving presence of love in this world, whether we are speaking of the whole Church, of specific congregations, or of the individual follower of Jesus.

The best examples provided by Jesus and the Apostles always take us right back to the two greatest commandments: love God with all that you are, and love others as yourself. For followers of Christ, love has never been, and never will be, more adequately captured by any other written or spoken laws.  Love is always outgrowing whatever else we want to idolize as perfect and permanent, even the literal words of the Bible.  Love forever challenges us to let go of whatever else we might cling to in the desire to feel more comfortable and confident amid all the uncertainties of life.  But, in the absence of laws settling all sorts of specific behavioral issues, are there more specific principles we can apply to be more complete and vital lovers of God and other people?  The Beatitudes reveal a wonderful set of such principles, but something very crucial is demonstrated in that early struggle of the Apostles in their post-Jesus ministry, and that’s where we will continue in Part 2.