Love: From the Thesis
If a place acquires its characteristics through the relational ethic practiced within it, then Jesus creates places of shalom through an ethic of love.
“The religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central,” wrote Howard Thurman.
It was because of love that God’s only Son came into the world, and it is through love that all things can become “on earth as it is in heaven” (John 3:16; Matt 6:10b). First Testament authors repeatedly assert that justice (mishpat), or the right ordering of things (shalom), was predicated on righteous behavior (sadiqah), or fidelity to the covenantal law. Jesus clarifies what righteousness means by explaining that “all the law and prophets hang on” two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40). He then removes any lingering ambiguity by teaching his followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Why? Because loving enemies is what God does. In the next verse Jesus tells us through enemy-love we mimic God and “may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:45).
When we love, we model our behavior on the righteous character of God himself and thereby establish justice. “The substance of that righteousness,” Walter Brueggemann explains, “is the well-being of the world.” He goes on to write:
“When Yahweh’s righteousness (Yahweh’s governance) is fully established in the world, the results are fruitfulness, prosperity, freedom, justice, peace, security, and well-being (shalom). Because Yahweh in righteousness wills good for creation, there is a complete convergence of Yahweh’s self-regard and Yahweh’s commitment to Israel and to creation.” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 303).
It is by participating with God as lovers that we join with him as co-creators.
How to Love
What does the love of God look like?
The standard and not inaccurate answer prooftexts 1 John 3:16 which reads, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Incredibly, and less quoted, John immediately follows this line with an economic exhortation: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (3:17).
This is the word of the Lord, but we should not rush by so quickly that we forget to ask to whom this word is directed. John is encouraging people who possess power and wealth. For them, the love of wealth is their stumbling block to discipleship, their ability to follow Jesus as an instrument of God’s love.
Theology has largely traded on the assumption that self-interest is the basic, sin-producing human flaw. Reinhold Niebuhr played a leading role in foregrounding this doctrine in modern theology. He believed that sin is primarily caused by the fact that “man loves himself inordinately.” The language used here exposes the theologian’s flaw. Theology, for most of its history, has been expounded by men whose common fault is an inordinate love of self. As women publicly entered theological discourse in the twentieth century, the one-sidedness and damaging power of the Church’s teaching was exposed. A love-ethic as self-denial was taught by men but not practiced by men. Carol Lakey Hess says that, “sadly, it is often the already humble who take the message of pride to heart” (37). She goes on to quote Jacquelyn Grant, who,
“writing to African American women who have taken on the greatest burden of service in our society, speaks even more boldly of ‘the sin of servanthood’ and calls for ‘the deliverance of discipleship.’ ‘A language needs to be adopted or emphasized that challenges the servant mentality of oppressed peoples and the oppressive mentality of oppressors.’” (ibid)
Fortunately, I believe the teachings of Jesus have already masterfully provided us with a language that holds the paradox of love together.
In the closing remarks of a parable in which every worker is paid equitably regardless of their time spent laboring, Jesus says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Three chapters later, in a tirade against Israel’s religious elite, he exclaims, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (23:11-12). Paul picks up on Jesus’ theme in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so no one might boast in the presence of God.”
These verses, representative of a far larger swath of scripture, capture what might be called the dual operations of love. For the oppressed, love offers empowerment and the upward mobility of liberation. For the powerful, love is the downward trajectory of self-sacrifice. The two operations are crucial for the equitable conditions of shalom to be met. Slaves are not more like Jesus by being better servants to their Master. How could they be if what Jesus’ atonement provides is freedom and abundant life?
The social reordering described in the above passages is not an arbitrary method for God to display his power. It is an act of love that brings his will for shalom into being.
Note that all people still have to exercise situation by situation ethical discernment. In the words of Martin Luther, the line between good and evil runs through every person. In the same way, each person is a composite of privilege and powerlessness, varying from one relational context to the other. Socioeconomically a black man might be quite vulnerable, while at the same time exercising disproportionate power over his family and acting unsustainably with the Land.
For the ultimate Greatest, the perfect act of love was the most disgraceful of deaths. But we should be wary of parceling this trajectory out to every man, woman, child and creature. The goal of Christian love is not corporate masochism. It is communion. Sanctification is the sojourn of disciples from our various social, cultural, economic, ecological, sin-smattered locations to a seat at the table where we can in unity share the bread and wine of Christ's broken body. Both repentance and liberation are prerequisites for the reconciled community.