...Kill them all!!
And remember...God is love.
by Rob Walton
We say it so much that it's become a cliche. God is love. Yes, yes, God is love. We say it all the time. We say it all the time that it loses meaning or significance. Clearly, it's lost any significance if we can advocate killing someone and proclaiming "God is love" all in one breath.
Sadly, this attitude exists. And I'm not referring to the Crusades or wars of the Medieval Ages. No, pastors today in sermons and on social media alternate between preaching the love of God and demanding the destruction of their "enemies" without missing a beat. Usually their enemies take the form of anyone holding opposing religious and even (or especially) political views.
You know what? On a human level it's completely understandable. These enemies deserve to be stopped. They deserve to be punished. They deserve to be killed. But as Christians we can't advocate such violent actions. As Christians we have only one course of action: love.
Love when it's easy. Love when it's hard. Love when it hurts. Love when it is stupid, ridiculous, reckless, and absurd to do so. Love those who it is unfathomable to love.
"But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you." - Luke 6:27-31 [NRSV]Woah, woah, woah. That is a little extreme, isn't it? Following those directions sounds like a good way to get hurt. Won't people take advantage of me if I love them that much? These words of Jesus are just ridiculous. They are downright silly. Brennan Manning agreed when he wrote, "No, the love of our God isn't dignified at all, and apparently that's the way He expects our love to be. Not only does He require that we accept his inexplicable, embarrassing kind of love; but once we've accepted it, He expects us to behave the same way with others."1
As impossibly unacceptable as this is, Jesus himself countered any objections or excuses we might respond to him with.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." - Luke 6:32 - 35 [NRSV]Manning said that this was the hallmark of a Christian. "God calls His children to a countercultural lifestyle of forgiveness in a world that demands an eye for an eye - and worse. But if loving God is the first commandment, and loving our neighbor proves our love for God, and if it is easy to love those who love us, then loving our enemies must be the filial badge that identifies Abba's children."2
Clearly, loving our enemies is important.
Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, chimes in on this subject in a manner that is almost shocking. "This means that we can no longer claim that we know God while hating our neighbor...In other words, the claim I believe in God is nothing but a lie if it is not manifest in our lives, because one only believes in God insofar as he loves."3 That hurts. That is hard. How often have I claimed to be a Christian, to know and love God, while maintaining anger and hatred toward my fellow human being? This makes me rather upset. But I find it hard to disagree with. We do not express our love of God by how regularly we go to church, or how high we raise our hands in worship, or how much we slip into the offering plate. Instead, we express our love of God through our love for one another.
Along the same lines as Rollins, Manning also emphasizes the immense importance of loving others in Christianity. "The commandment of love is the entire Christian moral code. Thomas Merton stated that a "good" Christian who harbors hatred in his heart toward any person or ethnic group is objectively an apostate from the Christian faith."4 Wow. That also hurts.
Perhaps the most amazing, though unsettling, part of these quotes is just how radical they feel to me. I said the words of Peter Rollins shocked me. But they shouldn't. Jesus taught the same thing two thousand years ago and we read those words often. But the words of Jesus don't seem radical anymore. Just like "God is love," we've turned the subversiveness of Jesus's words into meaningless catch phrases.
Brennan Manning wrote, "The only sane reaction to the evangelical standard of holiness is awe and confusion bordering on complaint. We should be embarrassed by the Word because it says much that we don't want to hear. But why are most of us not embarrassed? Why doesn't the Word exalt, frighten, and shock us? It's not because we are unfamiliar with it - we hear it week in and week out. Why doesn't it force us to reassess our lives?"5 This is a very good question, but I think the answer is obvious to anyone that will admit it. We don't like the commandment to love our enemies. Sure, it sounds nice, but we gloss over it. If we love our enemies, how will we rally together in self-righteous superiority against them?
Honestly, though, for me, a big name enemy is far easier to love and forgive than a close, personal acquaintance. Give me a Hitler or a Stalin. Give me someone who's atrocities are of such magnitude that they become vague monsters of history. I can easily forgive and love a caricature of a person that has never caused me any pain directly. That's easy. But loving someone I know? That's another story. Loving someone that I once loved until they crushed my heart? That's impossible. And that is the Christian faith. "True faith is loving a person after he has hurt you," says Francis Chan.6
Like I said, give me some abstract personification of evil. That's easy to forgive, I feel, for it is mostly intellectual. On a personal level, forgiving those close, intimate people that have wronged me requires something more. I can understand, intellectually, the fact that I should forgive them. I know that God's love for me should compel me to love others. I understand all of that, obviously, since I'm writing about it and advocating it. But I'm not entirely sure how to persuade my heart to go along with this program, especially when it's my heart that has been hurt so much by someone so close.
"We are commanded to love our enemies and do good to them," writes Chan. "Who are your enemies? Or, in terms we connect with better, who are the people you avoid or who avoid you? Who are the people who have hurt you or hurt your friends or hurt your kids? Are you willing to do good to those people? To reach out to them?"7 You had me until you said "reach out to them." My forgiveness works best (or only works at all) as an out of sight, out of mind attitude. I can forgive you in as much as I will remove you from my life, try to think about you as little as possible, and make no conscious move to intentionally cause you harm. To some extent that might be taking the high road. It may be quite admirable behavior. But it's not the limitless forgiveness filled with love and compassion that Jesus advocates.
Years ago I wrote a short skit that I described as exploring the difference between the intellectual and the experiential in faith. My father read it and summarized it far more eloquently as "head smarts vs. heart smarts." In my head, I recognize that Jesus teaches that I ought to love others in that unreserved, ridiculous way that Jesus loved others. But in my heart, I realize just how difficult it would be for me to love like this.
How do I forgive those that do not want forgiveness, that do not even feel they have done any wrong? Such an act seems like I would be conceding defeat. They had wronged me and they still won. Such an act of love belittles me and tears down my ego and sense of pride. Such love is disgraceful, gratuitous and just flat out ugly. Loving them like that is embarrassing to me.
What if God was too embarrassed to love me?
This limitless forgiveness we are to bestow upon others stems from the limitless forgiveness Christ bestowed upon us. "The incontrovertible sign of Christians who have experienced forgiveness is the ability to love their enemies," again wrote Manning, hammering the point home.8 Really, it's a beautiful ideal. But it's also impossible. It's madness. It makes me want to throw my laptop at the wall in a rage and shout, "No! I can't do it!" That would be the normal, expected reaction to the suggestion that I love others the way Christ loves me.
Instead, and this is where the madness comes in, I still attempt to love and forgive. I fail repeatedly. I often fail before I even make an attempt. I fail because I'm afraid I will fail. I'm terrified that I will make the first move toward forgiveness, all the while still harboring a lingering bitterness. What if my hurt and ensuing anger surfaces again after this supposed forgiveness has taken place?
Once again I find encouragement and comfort in the words of Brennan Manning who, while constantly urging me to strive for the impossible ideal of Christ's love, remembers that we are all humans and engaging in this madness is no easy task. "Experientially, the inner healing of the heart is seldom a sudden catharsis or an instant liberation from bitterness, anger, resentment, and hatred. More often it is a gentle growing into oneness with the Crucified who has achieved our peace through His blood on the cross. This may take considerable time because the memories are still so vivid and the hurt is still so deep. But it will happen. The crucified Christ is not merely a heroic example to the church: He is the power and wisdom of God, a living force in His present risenness, transforming our lives and enabling us to extend the hand of reconciliation to our enemies."9
Such acts of forgiveness are impossible for me. But as Manning said, that's where God comes in. Because, though it may sound cliche, it is still true: God is love.
So, I'm trying to forgive. I'm trying to love. I am failing miserably at both. However, I'm not giving up. I'm not letting the bitterness win this time. Instead, I defer to the love of God.
And I think we need to rethink what that means, or what we popularly think it means. When we say God is love, do we mean he loves me and the person next to me in the church pew and that's good enough? Or do we mean God is love and I strive to love those undeserving of my love with a reckless abandon that may be detrimental to my pride, social status, and self image? If we mean the latter, we might throw "God is love" around a lot less casually. We might be embarrassed to say it. We might be terrified to say it knowing full well the implication that statement carries for us.
"God is love" means the following:
I am flabbergasted by the love of God. As a result, I should likewise love others in such a similar way that they are flabbergasted by my love for them.
The rest is commentary.
Also, the term "flabbergasted" should be thrown around a lot more in theological discourse.
1Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 1990), 172.
2Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994), 67.
3Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human, To Doubt, Divine (New York: Howard Books, 2011), 127.
4Brennan Manning, The Importance of Being Foolish: How to Think Like Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 114.
6Francis Chan, Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008), 128.
8Manning, Being Foolish, 166.
9Manning, Abba's Child, 67.