From the first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. For Christian faith lives from the rising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. – Jurgen Moltmann (Theology of Hope, 16)
I have to admit that I’ve been pretty fearful as a result of recent events. From the terrorist attacks around the world to recent fear filled political rhetoric from a certain presidential candidate. I’ve watched on the side of the road as many I know and love have been captivated by this atmosphere of fear, fear not necessarily there to begin with, but cultivated in people in order to control and convince them. Fear, as we all know from experience, is one of the most powerful human emotions. It motivates human action like nearly nothing else can do.
This, however, makes it prime real estate for oppressors to set up shop in the human heart. If they can convince you to be afraid – whether of physical or emotional violence, the future of your children, or even your own personal fate – they’ve got you locked in to doing as they please. Of course, there are legitimate things we should be afraid of. I’m not trying to say that fear doesn’t have any positive role to play at all in our lives. For one, I think it is perfectly legitimate for us to fear the consequences of those who use fear to control others. I am afraid of what the Donald Trump phenomena means. I’m afraid for those who have been trapped by his seducing ideology of fear.
While there are many horrible, just awful things happening in our world, I do not think we should ever entertain the thought that fear has the last word – or even the first! Christianity is notably different in this manner. Our faith is one marked by faith, hope, and love. Fear isn’t in our vocabulary. “Perfect love,” we read, “drives out fear.”
Love should rule how we relate to all of creation. As simple as it seems at first, Jesus taught us that the old way of retaliation and revenge, of “getting even” is not his way; we are to instead love even our enemies (surely that precludes killing their families!). In Christ there is no “us” or “them” for either one to be fearful of the other. No “them” to keep away from “us”. No “them” who don’t belong with “us”. Love rules out all of those ways of relating with our neighbors, regardless of whether they are undocumented, poor, disabled, rich, unclean, black, or different from us.
From Paul, we learn that Christ has torn down all of those dividing walls that we have set up in our sinful ways. Speaking of the formerly hostile relations between Jews and Gentiles (perhaps a placeholder for the “other”), he writes, “Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…reconciling both groups to God in one body.” While it may seem like high-strung theology, Paul is quick, as usual, to demonstrate the implications of these beliefs: “so then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens (talk about a path to citizenship!) with the saints and also members of the household of God.”
Love makes no distinctions in the ways that humanity has routinely divided itself up into all sorts of categories and attached varying degrees of social status or privilege to each. This is the way of the world, not the way of love. To see Christ in each one of us, our enemies – yes, especially them – is what it means to love. We are never closer to resembling God and following Jesus than we are when we are loving those whom the world has deserted and left for dead. We may even be called to lay down our life for another, as John proclaimed was the culmination of love.
There is hope in this love. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible are there to continually remind us that our nationalism is likely more idolatry than it is patriotism. We can and we must support the well-being of our neck of the woods, but the logic of empire, imperialism, domination, the strong-man (i.e. “I alone can solve your problems!” – Trump), and war is not the way Christians are to live out their faith in the public sphere. The prophets were always necessary to remind us that we do not serve God by legitimizing empires but by protecting the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. This, is what a country should aim for. The health of Israel was never measured in God’s eyes by how large its borders were, how high its walls, how much the majority was protected from minorities, or how much law and order there was in its streets, but by how well they cared for those most likely to go without help in the world.
There were to be no strings attached to their love of the oppressed. God doesn’t limit his salvation to those who can pass a drug test or actively seek employment, as many social welfare laws do (or people might want them to do). God’s love, and in turn the goal of our own, is unconditional – without conditions, no boxes to check first! We are not to love those who look, speak, and act like us. Remember, that’s what Jesus called out the religious leaders of Israel for doing. Instead, Jesus taught the Israelites that the Samaritans were there neighbors – and therefore Israel was obliged to love them just as their own even though they were considered foreigners, had different beliefs, and looked different from them.
The implications of this love taught by Jesus go all the way back to the origin stories of Israel. God tells us through Moses that “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). Again, as the sinful people we are, this is still timely in our own day. The first century Christians dealt with it as well. As Gentiles were being converted to the faith, recently liberated Jews wanted to put the “yoke” of observing all the law onto these new converts. It’s just something about human nature that when we are free we too often use our freedom to oppress others. Paul responded, along with the Jerusalem council, that this would be too much of a burden to the new believers who were still relishing in the freedom they had received from Christ (this is, by the way, a lesson when trying to subdue enemies with “law and order”).
Christians are called to love unconditionally. To drive out all fear by their love. There is no fear of the “other” for Christians. We are all in this together. Even Leviticus, of all places (!), knew this best: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners” (19:34).
Love, as we find out from the New Testament is really the most precise definition for God. “God is love,” we are told. It’s the stuff God is made of. It’s what Jesus embodied as the Logos, the perfect image of God, on earth. It’s what Christians who take seriously the call to follow Christ should ever strive to be as well. Although many of us come from different and unique backgrounds, have diverse jobs, hold varying theological or political beliefs, we are all united by this singular mission of Christ’s body, the Church: to be love in our love-less, fearful world. “Our vocation is love,” as St. Therese of Lisieux would joyfully declare.
What have I been saying? As we approach this election season, full of its normal divisiveness, let us work to promote togetherness knowing that Christ has torn down all the walls of separation we build up between one another. We don’t look for a political messiah who will magically solve all of our problems through dictatorial rule; we only have one Lord, Jesus Christ. When our world is full of mockery and hate, let us strive to restore the dignity and value of those whom politicians try to downplay. God humbles the proud and raises up the lowly.
But more than anything, let us remove fear from our vocabulary. Although it is powerful, our faith and our love cast it out of our lives. There is no place for fear in the Christian life – whether or not it is directed towards what one may think are “legitimate” ends. Especially this week, I have been constantly tempted to respond to Trump’s fear-mongering and inciting, with fear of my own. Even when that fear motivates me to work even harder for the cause of justice for the oppressed and the unconditional equality of all persons, we are all better off, and ultimately much more powerful when we respond to fear with love. This is where our hope lies: in our ability, with God’s help, to love in spite of whatever others, or the events of this world may be encouraging us to do.
Christian love is not primarily inwardly-directed, to ourselves and what will make us safe or comfortable. It is directed toward those who are needy, oppressed, poor, and broken. It’s sent out to the Samaritans and the Gentiles, metaphorically speaking, of our world today, not just the white Christians who have historically been the ones in power and control in our country. Love is more purely so when it is given to our “enemies,” in doing so, it turns them into friends, to brothers and sisters. Remember, we are all in this together. Choose hope not fear. Leave hate behind and embrace love.
I will close similarly to how I began, with another quote.
Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it… Hope alone is to be called ‘realistic’ because it alone takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught. – Moltmann (Theology of Hope).