First and foremost, I’d like to thank Wendy Chen, Rasool Berry, and Cru in general for the invitation to speak to you today. I’ve been asked to speak on Christian love in the civic arena, and I’ll do so for a talk I’ve entitled “Thy Civic Neighbor.”
Now when you think someone’s wrong, or when you know they’re wrong, and their misperceptions and misdeeds are causing you and others to suffer, an equal and opposite reaction is the intuitive and seemingly appropriate response. It’s a logical response. The culture approved response. In fact, a lesser response would seem like a diminishment of one’s own value.
If you hurt or take something from me, and I don’t make you feel the real expense of what you did, then I’ve somehow lessened my own value. Because in this world, revenge is redemption.
However, the Bible strictly forbids such a calculus. In the Christian faith, reciprocation and proportionality don’t always amount to faithfulness. The gospel commands that our response be neither equal, nor opposite. When Jesus says, “Love thy neighbor and love thy enemy,” He’s disrupting that equation. He’s not calling for equal and opposite. He’s calling for a superior and transcendent response. Not hate and vitriol, nor fear impassivity, but rather righteous indignation, that’s never removed from a recognition of the other’s human dignity and best interest.
This doesn’t absolve one from the consequences of their actions, but we must remember that both hatred on behalf of the wrong cause and hatred on behalf of the right cause – both hatred, therefore, sinful.
Interestingly there’s a cognitive dissonance or inconsistency between principle and practice here for many of us. In practice, Christian love has to be deliberate. It’s tough, if not impossible, through works of the flesh. It takes more than just logic and tolerance to go about Christian love.
Yet it seems so cute and simple in the abstract. In theory, neighborly love sounds like a sweet and graceful thing, but I’d be remiss to leave it in the realm of fantasy. It’d be careless of me to humor you by pretending that it’s a thing to be achieved, merely through smiles, politeness and platitudes. Neighborly love in the biblical sense, is more complicated and more demanding. It’s often the external manifestation of thorough self examination and painfully intentional selflessness.
Look, I’m not here to sell you a fairy tale version of neighborly love. I’m not interested in contributing to some utopian vision. The Bible says, “This is how we know what love is. Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” The Bible tells us not to love simply with words, or speech, but with actions and in truth. Thus the Bible conception of neighborly love is not found in our witty but condescending, “bless your heart” quips, nor is it present in our genteel civic rituals that cost us nothing.
The biblical brand of neighborly love necessarily involves self sacrifice. If love is to be construed through Jesus’s example, then we must remember that He was betrayed. That He was humiliated and tortured, that He died a painful and agonizing death. Let us not trivialize the sacrifice inherent in the Christian conception of love.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that drum major for justice, the man who showed the world that it’s better to die than hate your neighbor, was under so much pressure from death threats and harassment by government officials like J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, that at one point, he developed a nervous tic. It awkwardly made him stutter, in a quite pronounced way in the middle of his speeches. That’s right, the greatest orator of the 20th century, couldn’t quite get the words out of his mouth, because of the weight of his calling. He said the problem didn’t subside until he made his peace with death.
Let us never underestimate the Christian love imperative because neighborly love has always come at a great cost. He suffered physically for daring to love in a loveless age. His health was compromised because he was determined to speak the truth in a truth deficient time.
To see this message as morbid is to miss the point. The moral here is that neighborly love has never been cheap. It might not demand our lives, but it will demand something of us, that we won’t want to give. It’ll demand something that the culture will call us fools for relinquishing. In this moment, a neighborly love that leaves us in our comfort zone, that allows us to always do things on our own terms, is fraudulent. It’s counterfeit currency. It’s a means of looking the part without earning the genuine article. It’s optics with no substance.
To love our neighbors today might mean being rebuked and scorned by those we called friends and ideological kinsmen yesterday. It might cost us professional opportunities or cause us to watch a critical mass of our church members walk out of the doors, unable to withstand hard teaching. For majority Christians, in many cases, neighborly love will demand a conflict with self interest. It will involve taking a stand against ideological orthodoxies, in order to better pursue Christian orthodoxy and Christian orthopraxy – right doctrine and right conduct.
At some point the gospel comes into conflict with our cultural preferences. With the perfect but fictional cultural narratives that we’ve created to tickle our ears, and flatter our tribes. The Christian love imperative forces us to join in our neighbors’ suffering. It makes us choose between our luxuries and our Christ like convictions. This is how we know what love is. Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.
For the Christian, there can be no love without self sacrifice. What are we willing to lose to heal our neighbor? Social and political capital? Elections? Prescriptive advantages?
Neighborly love isn’t simply loving those who are lovable, or loving those who will love us back. We won’t always be rewarded with appreciation and reciprocity. As a consequence, neighborly love, in today’s civic space, will demand moral imagination.
Moral imagination is the ability to see, not simply what has been historically, or what is in the present, but the ability to see what could be in the future. Ought to be. It’s hope in the midst of oppression, division and vitriol. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s more like the Hebrew vision of the land promise, but yet to come. It’s what convinced Frederick Douglass to learn how to read and write, while still in chains, when nothing in his physical line of sight indicated that he ever be able to put those talents to use.
We trade insult for insult today because we don’t have the moral imagination to understand that human dignity isn’t scarce. We don’t have to battle over it. We don’t have to hoard it for ourselves. It’s abundant and innate. It takes moral imagination not to have an opposition-centered public witness in a polarized environment.
It takes moral imagination to see what the moment is hiding from you. It reveals what’s there, but undetected by conventional wisdom. Moral imagination prevents us from being enslaved by the moment. It enables us to participate in partisan politics without seeing the world through a partisan lens. It assures us that there’s more than two ways to solve a problem. It shows us that the problem with conservatism might not be best solved by secular progressivism, and the problem with secular progressivism might not be solved by ideological conservatism. And it emboldens us to uphold timeless Christian convictions, even when popular culture mocks us or threatens us for it.
Moral imagination reveals that there’s love in inconvenient truths. Faith produces moral imagination. It gives us the capacity to see and understand what we have in common with someone who is taunting us or offending us. It forces us to recall that everyone has a story. That everyone has a testimony. Even when their anger and prejudices hide it from us.
Moral imagination enables us to love thy civic neighbor.
Thank you for having me.