Sunday, October 4, 2020

If I Cannot Love (Insert Your Preferred Villain Here), I Cannot Love Anybody: A Reflection on Christian Love

The other day on Facebook, I posted a lengthy reflection on what it means to pray for healing, given my commitment to Christian love, and inspired by the recent COVID diagnosis of President Trump. I stressed that prayer for healing should encompass all brokenness: physical and psychological, moral and social. We should always pray for more healing rather than less. When our society is riddled with all the problems we see, I am convinced that the solution is more love, not less.

But on reflection, it seems to me that these ideas, absent a deeper context, can lead to misunderstanding. So here, I want to offer some deeper thoughts about what Christian love calls for in relation to those we might think are not good people, those we think might pose a threat to others. Because even as I pray for Donald Trump's full recovery, I believe that for the good of this country, his presidency must end.

At the height of the Nazi ascendancy, pastor and activist A.J. Muste said, “If I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love anybody.” He was making a point about the logic of Christian love, sometimes called “agape”: it is the kind of love that does not wait on worth, but extends to each person, even the enemy. If your love excludes the enemy, then it isn’t this kind of love. It isn’t agape. 

That doesn’t mean your love for your family or friends isn’t real and beautiful. It doesn’t mean you’re a villain on the order of Hitler. It just means that this particular difficult kind of love that Jesus called his followers to display is not the kind of love you are cultivating in your life. Or, if you are trying to cultivate it, then it has eluded you.

It eludes all of us. It has to be and always is an ongoing struggle. To be committed to living by this sort of love is not to actually live by it, but to constantly try anew.

A couple decades after Muste, Martin Luther King, Jr., made very similar points when he led a movement that targeted racism, not racists, and when he insisted that an unwavering and relentless opposition to racial injustice should be paired with love for the agents of injustice.

But it is very important to know, not just the scope of this kind of love, but its character. What does loving Hitler look like?

It doesn’t mean being “nice.” It doesn't mean not trying to stop them from committing crimes against humanity. It doesn't mean enabling abuse or remaining silent in the face of injustice.

Years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the Christian Love Ethic and its relationship to violence. One of the points I made was that agape looks very different when it is directed towards the robbery victim lying in a gutter along the Jericho road than it looks when directed towards the elites who are abusing the poor or those who watch it happen in silence because they don’t want to risk their comfort. At its heart, agape is a love that desires that the brokenness within each person be healed and that seeks, in the most fitting way, to promote such healing.

For the racist, the most egregious brokenness is their racism. For the compulsive liar, it is their profound disconnection from truth. These are afflictions of the soul, wounds that separate the afflicted from the true and the good while also causing untold damage to others. My love for the liar and my love for the liar’s victims demands that I stand against the lies and pray for a transformation that will restore to the liar the love of truth that is essential for human welfare.

Let me be clear. Agape is not the sort of love that calls an abuse victim to remain with their abuser. Because agape is a love that extends to everyone, it extends to the victim of abuse. It extends to yourself. And so agape calls abuse victims to protect themselves from toxic relationships. By virtue of the love they are called to have for themselves, they are called to escape the kind of relationship that enables abuse. But this love also extends to all the future potential victims of the abuser. And so it can mean denouncing the abuse (if that is safe). It can mean warning the world about the threat that the abuser poses.

And because it extends to the abuser—and because the brokenness Christians call sin is the worst kind of brokenness of all, a brokenness that separates the sinner from the most fundamental truths in a way that leaves them adrift, that leaves them furiously chasing after dominance and control of others as a surrogate for the deeper peace and joy that is possible when one lives in tune with reality—because the abuser's sin is so crushingly destructive of the sinner, love for the sinner calls for interventions that shake them out of the illusion that the path they are on is anything but evil.

This can and often does mean punishment. This was one of the most interesting conclusions I reached in my study of Christian love and violence: the infliction of punishment on someone who has committed egregious wrongs may be the most loving thing we can do for them. Of course, our systems of punishment are themselves broken and need to be healed. The privileged often escape punishment while the marginalized are punished, not for serious wrongs, but for desperate acts pursued to meet their basic needs or escape their pain. But for those who are mired in viciousness, who have lost their capacity to empathize with others, who are so selfish or so trapped by ideologies of hate that they have become severed from the true and the good, the most loving thing we can do for them may be to punish them.

When I began doing weekend conflict resolution workshops in prisons, and I found myself forming bonds of human connection to murderers and rapist and even child molesters, I never thought they shouldn’t be there. They were exactly where they belonged, both for their own sakes and for the sakes of their victims. But for their sakes, they also needed a healing from afflictions they didn’t understand. They needed a grace they didn’t know how to ask for. Some were so closed off from the true and the good that they thought they weren’t broken—and the most powerful breakthrough of an intense weekend workshop came when they found themselves face to face with the depths of their own brokenness and began to weep for all those they’d hurt, all those who had hurt and abused them, all those ways they’d been hiding from the truth about themselves, and all those ways they had dealt with wounds inflicted on them when they were innocent by simply inflicting comparable wounds on the innocent around them.

This kind of brokenness—moral brokenness—is the most damaging kind of brokenness of all. Especially when its victim lives within layers of delusion that hide the truth of their brokenness from themselves. And so love calls us above all to care about healing such brokenness where we find it. But the most serious kind of brokenness is not necessarily the most urgent. Sometimes, to even begin to focus on moral brokenness, other kinds of brokenness must be addressed first.

This is why we are called to love the poor and the sick by offering food and healing without thought to their character, without exploring what other forms of brokenness might lurk beneath the surface. The Good Samaritan, coming upon the robbery victim lying in a gutter, didn’t first grill the robbery victim to find out if he was a racist or an abuser before helping bring him to safety and care. The Good Samaritan just helped.

When it comes to those who are physically wounded, sick with a deadly illnesses, starving, or homeless, their desperate human need cries out in such a way that if we walk on or place conditions on our aid, it means we don’t love them with the agape kind of love. If Martin Luther King, Jr., found one of the most vile racist sheriffs of his day lying in a gutter, bleeding, King would get that man to a hospital and pray for his health. He would also continue to oppose and fight to overthrow everything that this sheriff was fighting to defend.

Even as we punish those who commit egregious wrong, we must feed them a healthy diet, provide adequate shelter and health care, and pursue their deeper psychological and moral needs. In so doing, we show (or at least strive to show) that the punishment we inflict is not about hatred of them, not about petty vengeance, but about repudiating and hopefully transforming the moral brokenness that harms both them and all those they victimize.

Sometimes, when our bitterest enemies fall sick or become destitute, we are not in a position to drive them to the hospital or give them a bowl of stew. When we cannot do these things directly, we do it by praying for those needs, an act that displays our commitment to those needs in the face of our own impotence. For me, this is what prayer is about, first and foremost: a way to commit myself to my neighbor’s welfare even when there is nothing else that I can do. It is a way to orient my will towards their health, their safety, their general welfare, their moral development, despite my limits.

One reason we might not be able to provide help ourselves is because we lack the skills or the resources But a different reason is because, in doing so, we might put ourselves within the reach of someone who would exploit that closeness in order to hurt us. This is why I would not encourage an abused wife who has escaped the hell she was in to return to her abusive husband if he fell deeply sick and needed a caretaker. Such an act would expose her, someone she is called to love, to renewed abuse. 

Sometimes, the reason we can’t help someone is because we know that if we try, they will take advantage of our good will to attack us, to dominate or bully or abuse us. Our love for ourselves demands that we remain at a distance. And so we express our love by opposing their abusiveness, condemning their actions, perhaps insisting they be punished, and praying for their health.

(Some use this as an excuse, for example, to not provide help for refugees. But there is a difference between refusing to take in someone you know to be a terrorist and refusing to take in innocent victims of terrorism and violence out of a fear, unsupported by concrete evidence, that they *might* be terrorists in disguise or might be prone towards terrorism—simply because of their ethnicity or religion. This is prejudice, not self-protection. We create more terrorist threats to our safety when we turn away those in need out of prejudice than when we offer them safety, a home, and a way to live with dignity.)

In this moment, I am thinking about what this ethic means for how I should respond to Donald Trump’s COVID diagnosis. What is clear to me is this: I am called to pray for his health. In this moment, that has an urgency that I cannot ignore. I am called to pray that he gets the care he needs to recover fully from this disease that has the power to kill. But his illness does not change my belief that his administration poses a credible danger to the health of this country, that his character is such that his occupying the office of the presidency is doing harm, serious harm, to the country I love.

And so even as I pray for his full recovery, I will vote against him, and I will call out in appropriate ways and in appropriate places the offenses he has committed—the bullying, the refusal to condemn white supremacists, the chronic indifference to truth, the self-serving exploitation of people’s fears and the deliberate stoking of divisiveness and polarization at a time when these problems have become so serious that our country urgently needs a leader who at least tries to do the opposite. As I pray for his healing I will pray for the kind of breakthrough in grace I occasionally saw with some of the prisoners I worked with: a coming to grips with the depths of his own brokenness.

I am called to love everyone. And this means I am called to see and respond to all the brokenness in the world to the best of my ability. I am called to cry out for bodily healing if Trump’s body is broken, and to cry out for moral healing if his character is broken, and to cry out for social healing if his brokenness exacerbates the brokenness of my country. To oppose what I think is dangerous in his character, in his policies, does not preclude me from praying for his health and the health of his family and those around him. In fact, it all springs from the same source. I am called to love in a way that seeks the end to brokenness wherever I find it.

This is the ethic I try to live by. I am no better at it than others who try to live by it. I fail, and then I try again. I will not tell you that this is the ethic you must live by, but I will say that I have found it to have an astonishing potential to heal forms of brokenness that looked to be so fixed, so permanent, that there was no possibility at all of any change. It doesn’t always work. But the more that this sort of love spreads within a community, the more immersive it becomes, the more powerful it is.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on. Not much to disagree with. Our American culture is splintering largely because we have lost how to be civil with those we disagree with. Love of "enemies" is something that humanity knows little about but also essential to learn if humanity is to go much further. Eric, please keep it coming. Your blog is priceless.