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Jesus Answers the Headline News: Love

Updated: Feb 20

For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. - John 3:16

For centuries in our country the greatest challenge to justice and peace was not only immoral laws but the tolerance by “people of good will” who idly stood by while racism, misogyny, homophobia, and classism thrived. In his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr.King wrote to a group of sympathetic white clergy who had urged the Civil Rights leader to slow down progress:


But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms….


…Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal, and unbelievable facts. On the basis of them, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the political leaders consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation…


…The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "wait."


Dr. King’s letter was powerfully persuasive. Decades later my family were members of one of the churches who received this letter, First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham. The pastor who received this letter in 1963 responded by convincing the congregation to integrate. The church split and was devastated, for many years…but when we arrived in 2005 it was a multi-cultural congregation with an incredible witness of love. 


Yet, in our time things seemed to have turned on their head. In the predictable pendulum filled with historic irony, in an effort no longer tolerate the intolerable, like ages past, much of our rhetoric as a society has become intolerant.


Jesus shows us a way out of this loop. The solution to intolerance is neither tolerance nor intolerance but love. It is easy to confuse love with docility but in Jesus hands’ it is anything but.


Love begins by centering our actions and words in a godly manner. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians wrote the quintessential challenge for our time, not only speaking the truth (which seems hard enough) but “Speaking the truth… in love.” Measure every word, is it a word of love? Or contempt and hatred disguised as righteousness. Just because you are right does not mean you have the right to be censorious, demeaning, and odious in asserting the truth. 


Today’s headlines are often in order to influence others to a particular point of view distort the truth. But love begins with respect. The philosophical concept of charity of interpretation gives clarity as to how to engage with opposing views. “It urges charitable interpretation, meaning interpretation that maximizes the truth or rationality of what others think and say.” (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


Sadly, we have seen the failure of the principle of charity with the conflict between Israeland Palestine. In one article we see people being excoriated as antisemites for even speaking a word of concern for the Palestinian people and in the next article those suggesting Israel has a right to defend itself are labeled Islamophobes. Charity of interpretation means not reading motivations into what others have said that they have not disclosed.


Some years ago, I remember listening to one person speak on their opinion that Christians should not rely on the government to feed the hungry. After all they said that Jesus in speaking to his disciples commanded them, “You give them something to eat.” In my mind I quickly (and wrongly) judged their intentions thinking to myself, “That is just their way of failing to care for the hungry while trying to keep the government small.” Thankfully I did not say anything because I later found out they run a meal ministry that feeds 1,500 hungry people each day! My internal response failed to judge their words charitably because of my own biases.


Jesus offers us several answers to the problem of intolerance.


First, to thoughts such as mine, Jesus issues a warning in the Sermon on the Mount. “Judge not lest you be judge for the measure you give will be the measure you get.” This means be careful in how you assess others for it may easily turn back on you.


Second, He challenges us to be more humble and self-aware:


…how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.


The word hypocrite in the Greek means to play a part as an actor on stage. In this case He is telling us that there is a part of us that knows the speck in our neighbor’s eye is a trifle, but we attack others to cover our own failings. In other words, intolerance can be a cover for facing the truth in ourselves.


Third, fighting intolerance means being open to those with opposing world views so that we can grow in wisdom and understanding. In His encounter with the Syrophoenician woman,Jesus shockingly calls her child a dog. When she challenges Him not by attacking Him but pleading, His perspective widens, and He proceeds to heal her daughter.


Fourth, He shows us how to not tolerate intolerance, by using love, and standing up for those whom others do not tolerate. Remember when the woman burst into meal with all males, washed his feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair? Polite society was aghast. He not only stood up for her but castigated them. And yet in this castigation although He said she would be first in the kingdom He did not say that they would be left out entirely. 


In fact, He made it a practice of standing with those whom others would not, women, tax collectors, sinners, and more. He spoke the truth in love when a crowd wanted to stone an adulterer. In saying “the one without sin should cast the first stone” He turned back their fear onto themselves and told the woman He did not condemn her. In speaking the truth to them in love, He turned an angry mob into a self-reflecting group who perhaps realized she was no different than they.


Finally, He taught us not to so much tolerate our enemies but to love them…to pray for them. He recognized His enemies were not inherently evil but broken people not only in need of correction, but of prayer and compassion, thus while being murdered by them on the cross, He prayed for their forgiveness.


In this sense He fulfilled the fullness of Paul’s challenge to speak the truth in love. In the Greek Paul’s words are even more compelling, the literal translation is “truthing in love.” 


This means to shape your entire life, your words, and actions, so that it embraces that which is true in order to manifest love. Once again to see how the ethics of Christ can be lived out in our world we turn to that hero of the faith, Archbishop Desmon Tutu of South Africa, who embodied Jesus’ love. 


This story is shared by Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, whose Christ-centered mission is to eradicate poverty.


The former South African archbishop Desmond Tutu used to famously say, “We are prisoners of hope.” Such a statement might be taken as merely rhetorical or even eccentric if you hadn’t seen Bishop Tutu stare down the notorious South African Security Police when they broke into the Cathedral of St. George’s during his sermon at an ecumenical service. I was there and have preached about the dramatic story of his response more times than I can count. The incident taught me more about the power of hope than any other moment of my life. Desmond Tutu stopped preaching and just looked at the intruders as they lined the walls of his cathedral, wielding writing pads and tape recorders to record whatever he said and thereby threatening him with consequences for any bold prophetic utterances. They had already arrested Tutu and other church leaders just a few weeks before and kept them in jail for several days to make both a statement and a point: Religious leaders who take on leadership roles in the struggle against apartheid will be treated like any other opponents of the Pretoria regime. After meeting their eyes with his in a steely gaze, the church leader acknowledged their power (“You are powerful, very powerful”) but reminded them that he served a higher power greater than their political authority (“But I serve a God who cannot be mocked!”). Then, in the most extraordinary challenge to political tyranny I have ever witnessed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu told the representatives of South African apartheid, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!” He said it with a smile on his face and enticing warmth in his invitation, but with a clarity and a boldness that took everyone’s breath away. The congregation’s response was electric. The crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s challenge to power. From a cowering fear of the heavily armed security forces that surrounded the cathedral and greatly outnumbered the band of worshipers, we literally leaped to our feet, shouted the praises of God and began…dancing. (What is it about dancing that enacts and embodies the spirit of hope?) We danced out of the cathedral to meet the awaiting police and military forces of apartheid who hardly expected a confrontation with dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, they backed up to provide the space for the people of faith to dance for freedom in the streets of South Africa. (Jim Wallis, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It)


Desmond Tutu and Dr. King embodied living the truth and, without compromising justice, showed us how to do it in love. In writing the letter from jail to those clergymen after telling them the hard truth he ended it with the following words which has become my prayer not only for my preaching, but my life and invite you to think of it the same:


If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me. Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.


Amen.

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