The Inherent Relationship of Love and Justice

 

clouds in the sky

by Herb Montgomery | May 7, 2021


“There is a way to teach God’s love that is complicit in oppression and is harmful to marginalized communities. There is another way to teach love that can be foundational to the work of transforming our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone . . . Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having . . . We can explore ways that understanding Universal love that lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in that love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his masters business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:9-17)

The intended audience for this passage is the developing community of Jesus followers, and the central theme of the passage is love. Out of all the canonical gospels, John’s expresses the highest form of Christology since the writing of the gospel of Mark. Since then, the community developed its ideas about the relationship between Jesus and Jesus’ Father (see John 1:1-3). In our passage this week, this relationship and Jesus’ relationship with his followers are models for Jesus followers to emulate in their relationships with one another. Love is one of the central themes in John, more so than in Matthew, Mark, Luke and even the book of Acts where the word love does not appear even once.

Consider, by contrast, how often love is the focus of John’s version of the Jesus story:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, italics added.)

“The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” (John 3:35,italics added.)

“For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.” (John 5:20, italics added.)

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34,35, italics added.)

“No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27, italics added.)

“I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23, italics added.)

“I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26, italics added.)

See also John 10:17; 14:15, 21-23, 31; 17:24; and 21:15-17.

Each of the synoptic gospels addresses love, but none of them repeats the theme to the degree we see in John’s gospel.

There is a way to teach God’s love that is nothing more than guilt management for the privileged, propertied, and powerful, that does nothing more than help them to silence the background noise of their troubled conscience. I’ve also found over the years that many Christians who live in an empowered or privileged social location also name John’s gospel as their favorite out of the four. I wonder if there is a connection.

There’s also another way to teach God’s love that could be foundational to our work to transform our world into a just, compassionate, safe home for all those who are vulnerable to harm in the present system. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Emilie M. Townes:

“When you start with an understanding that God loves everyone, justice isnt very far behind.” (Dr. Emilie M. Townes; Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

In 2010, Dr. Cornel West firmly grounded distributive, societal justice work in the soil of universal love when he said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also relied on his deep belief in a universal love and social justice for the objects of that love:

“When days grow dark [sic] and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through lifes dark [sic] valleys and into sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart, in A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, p. 9)

Love that only leaves the privileged in a conscience-appeased state so they can sleep better at night isn’t a love worth having. If a belief in universal love is only serves to achieve privatized, individual, internal well-being and doesn’t also move us to work publicly for justice within our communities, then we should abandon that belief and kind of love immediately. I agree with James Baldwin who wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” (James Baldwin; The Fire Next Time, p. 47)

The late Thomas Merton went so far as to equate a theology of love with a theology of resistance and revolution:

“A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity, while identifying peace’ with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests of the rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness, longsuffering, and to solve their problems, if at all, nonviolently. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother or sister to homicidal desperation.” (Thomas Merton; Toward a Theology of Resistance found in Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p.121)

I want to offer one word of caution in relation to our passage this week. As I’ve repeatedly said over the past few weeks, John’s gospel speaks to the myth of redemptive suffering more so than any of the other canonical gospels:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.”

I’ve also written repeatedly about the harm the myth of redemptive suffering does to vulnerable communities so I will not unpack the whole discussion again here. Instead I will offer Dr. Katie Cannon’s words in the foreword to the 20th Anniversary edition of Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness:

“[Williams] contends that theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” (Kindle location 133)

As I wrote in Imagery of a Good Shepherd, there is a difference between empowered people sacrificing and them teaching disempowered people to sacrifice themselves. (Also see Brown and Parker’s For God So Loved The World?) The early church was largely comprised of those who, as Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas often says, didn’t have a wall to even have their back up against. While the giving of some people in privileged social locations can hardly be called sacrifice (see Mark 12:41-44), teaching disempowered people the myth of redemptive suffering can be destructive or even lethal.

I’ll close with Thomas Merton’s timely words:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.” (Ibid.)

This week, let’s explore ways that understanding God loves everyone can lead us, not to private, assured passivity, but to the work of remaining in God’s love by shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for each and every one of us.

HeartGroup Application

1.  Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Contrast some of the ways a message of love can be used to impede our justice work along with ways a message of love can be foundational.  Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


For and Against John

Wall Street street sign“For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him.” (Q 7:29-30)

Companion Texts:

Luke 7:29-30: “(All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.)”

Matthew 21:32: “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

An Appeal to John’s Followers 

Let’s step back and look at what’s taken place in Sayings Gospel Q so far. We’ve ended the core of Q’s teaching section. Next was the story of the Centurion that set us up for Jesus’ interaction with John’s disciples. This focus on John’s followers can be further subdivided into four parts:

  1. John’s Inquiry  Q 7:18-23
  2. More than a Prophet (last week) Q 7:24-28
  3. For and Against John (this week) Q 7:·29-30
  4. This Generation and the Children of Wisdom (next week) Q 7:31-35

(see Sayings Gospel Q)

I believe the Q community used this section of the writings to reach out to John’s former followers and welcome them into the Jesus community. These two communities overlapped, and this part of the Sayings Gospel Q attempts to combine the communities into one. In both Judea and Galilee, these followers would have been minorities within the larger Jewish population. It’s not hard to imagine them pressing together to find community and support.

What can we learn today from this week’s saying?

Tax Collectors and Pharisees

Today, we often contrast tax collectors and Pharisees in terms of the Jewish Torah tradition. The Pharisees are presented as strict adherents of Jewish purity codes whereas tax collectors are assumed to have colluded with Rome and lived disregarding the Torah.

But this contrast is a great oversimplification, and fails to challenge the status quo in our own thinking.

There was a cultural contrast between the 1st Century tax collectors and Pharisees. To see it, let’s go to a story that only appears in Luke’s gospel. We’ll come right back to Q, but first consider the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told in Luke 16:19-21.

The story begins this way: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

This introduction includes background references that the first audience would have recognized. J.Jeremias shares that background in his book Parables:

“In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from a well-known folk- material . . . This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world . . . Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (p.183)

This story was typical told as an afterlife reversal-of-fortunes tale involving a tax collector and a Torah scholar. The scholar character alluded to the Pharisees. The common way to tell the story contrasted the characters’ regard or disregard of the Torah’s purity codes. Yet Jesus does something more economically subversive than religiously subversive. His version changes the story in a way that the audience couldn’t miss.

Jesus’s version of the story did not emphasize the tax collectors’ disregard for the Pharisees’ interpretation of Torah but instead contrasted those who were wealthy and those who were poor. An economic contrast made no distinction between wealthy Pharisees and wealthy tax collectors. The immediate context of the story in Luke is Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.”

Remember that even the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, who practiced a much more progressive spirituality than the school of Shammai, nonetheless practiced and taught Hillel’s Prozbul in the area of economics. (We explored what the Prozbul meant in Renouncing One’s Rights.)

Jesus was a Jew, and not opposed to Judaism. When we understand how much the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Hillel’s Pharisaical school agreed, we begin to see that what brought Jesus into conflict with the religious elite of his day wasn’t so much his religious teachings as much as his economic teachings. The Luke story shows that Jesus faced rejection from the Jewish elite, not the Jewish people themselves, and not for religious reasons but for economic ones. This is a very human dynamic between calls for mutual aid and resource-sharing and our universal greed and selfishness.

So back to our saying this week.

I challenge you this week to look at our saying in economic terms. We usually see the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees as belonging to two separate camps, but that is not what the narrative describes. In this part of the text, the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees both belonged to the same economic class, and they both opposed the poor. They both belonged to the wealthy elite. But at this point in Sayings Gospel Q, the writer wants us to know that the tax collectors that religious leaders viewed as “sinners” embraced the teachings of John and Jesus whereas the religious, wealthy elite simply did not.

We see this dynamic today among the secular and religious populations in America. There are exceptions to what I am about to say. Yet I see large numbers of secular people who in social and economic matters embrace the teachings of Jesus while large swathes of religiously conservative people who show ignorance of or even disregard for Jesus’s social and economic teachings. Religiously they worship Jesus, and may have incredibly high notions of him. At the same time they are passive about following what Jesus taught about the social and economic matters that are still relevant today.

In the teachings of Jesus that we’re looking at this week, we learn that the tax collectors and the wealthy Pharisees were the same in economic terms, and so the tax collectors cease being just “sinners” who Jesus ate with. Though the religious elite called them sinners, Jesus described the tax collectors as the people who actually responded to him and followed his economic teachings.

What does this mean for us today? Responding to Jesus may not seem very religious, and it might not gain us the approval of the religious elite. The tax collectors in Jesus’s day didn’t respond to him by becoming more faithful to the purity codes. But their lives did radically change in economic terms as they joined the followers of Jesus in indiscriminate care for the poor.

This saying might also mean that we find some people outside of the Church universal living lives more in harmony with the teachings of the historical Jesus even as they are in deep disharmony with the religious culture of Christianity. And we might find large numbers of those who proudly carry the title of “Christian” who are further away from following the teachings of the historical Jesus than their more secular human siblings are.

The community of Sayings Gospel Q calls us to remember Q 6:46.

Sayings Gospel Q 6:46: “Why do you call me: Master, Master, and do not do what I say?” (Q 6:46)

Luke 6:46, 47: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like.”

Matthew 7:21-24: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock . . . ”

(For more commentary on these passages please see Not Just Saying Master, Master and Houses Built on Rock or Sand)

Again, I want to emphasize that we’re not putting Jesus in competition with the Torah. Sayings Gospel Q isn’t about Torah observance. It is simply interesting that the people in Jesus’s culture who were labeled “sinners” (that is, not observing the Torah) were the ones who embraced John’s and Jesus’s economic teachings, while those who thought themselves to be very strict about the purity codes of the law did not embrace those teachings. Yet Jesus’s teaching was more in harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings than Hillel’s teachings were. Who really observed the Torah? The people who complied with the Schools of Hillel and the Prozbul? Or those who did what Jesus taught?

If this is true. Jesus didn’t threaten the religious leaders because he taught a radical new religion (Christianity). Jesus was crucified because his economic teaching was gaining momentum. The Temple Protest narrative in the synoptic gospels was less religious and more about a system of exploitation that the Temple aristocracy had become the center of. Hillel had taught that people could make atonement with deeds of lovingkindness rather than animal sacrifice—“I desire love not sacrifice”—and he wasn’t crucified for this religious teaching but was instead regarded as one of the most progressive and enlightened rabbis in all Jewish history. So it’s important to see that Jesus’s rejection was limited to the the privileged elite and was not primarily religious but economic.

If today you find yourself resonating with Jesus’s socio-political-economic teachings, but out of step with most things Christian or religious, you are not alone. You’re in the right story.

Remember what Sayings Gospel Q states:

For John came to you. The tax collectors responded positively, but the religious authorities rejected him. (Q 7:·29-30)

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, go through the gospels and make a list of all the changes that you see Jesus teaching. Note the chapter and verse references where this teaching is taught.
  2. Next, make a separate list of the changes that you’ve noticed contemporary Christianity expecting people to make when they choose to become a Christian.
  3. Sit down with your HeartGroup and discuss what your two lists have in common and where they differ.

It’s healthy to recognize when the changes we expect a new Jesus follower to make have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus of Nazareth actually taught. Some big ticket items to Christians today were never mentioned by Jesus, not even once, and some large elements of Jesus’s teachings aren’t highly prioritized today.

Discuss with your group what you’re learning about how to follow the teachings of Jesus more deeply.

Thank you, again, for joining us this week and for journeying with us through this series. I’m so glad you are here.

Keep living in love till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.