How do we love one another, as Jesus commanded, and still engage social activism? My 31 July post in this group, on Jesus’ commandment “love one another,” generated a lot of feedback. There were also a lot of questions. How do we love one another when we come face to face with individuals or systems that oppress or otherwise cause hurt? Aren’t we supposed to “speak truth to power?” What if our Christian moral convictions require us to take a stand?
Loving one another doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to intolerable, repugnant conduct or to social wrongs. Some make the mistake of equating Christian love with a sort of sentimental syrup that makes everything nice. Christian love should never be associated with superficial niceness. Christian love is symbolized by the cross, not by Cupid–a blindfolded baby wearing diapers. There is nothing blind about Christian love. Nor did Jesus say, “Let bygones be bygones.” Nowhere in the Bible will you find an example of forgiveness or reconciliation without truth telling first. Accountability is part of Christian love and essential to Christian community. Consider Jesus’ encounter with the disciple who denied and deserted him. (Jn 21)
The Gospel record is loaded with episodes in which Jesus corrects or rebukes his disciples and challenges others in his audience when it is necessary to do so. There was nothing gentle, meek or mild when Jesus rebuked Peter, calling him Satan (Mt. 16: 23) or when he called the Pharisees “sons of snakes.” (Mt. 23: 33) Following suit, Paul invested enormous energy in correcting the errors he found in his churches, sometimes using very harsh language for those who evidently opposed him (Phil. 3: 2). It wasn’t easy. He was well aware that sometimes his words resulted in real hurt among those he loved. (2 Cor. 7:8) Both Jesus and Paul followed in a long and strong tradition of biblical prophets who exposed social injustice and moral failure. Call it loving correction or tough love or a euphemism of your choice, but Christians err when they interpret love as a sort of feel good niceness. But Jesus and Paul were also highly skilled in their tactics. They addressed error and wrong, issues of moral conduct and social justice, with great care.
In a way, things would be easier if all we had to do was to call out wrongdoing whenever and wherever we find it with no regard for the outcomes, with little thought for how our words of correction feel to others or what effect we have in achieving our desired goals. That is what many people do and it shows in the results. Let’s face it. If Christian activism was all that effective, the world would look a lot different than it does. While presuming to be prophetic, we can be counterproductive, ineffective or even hurtful. This is where some Christian activism and advocacy gets it wrong. Discipleship includes accountability, but accountability requires skill, tact, energy, time, patience, sincerity and most of all, love. Social media, e.g. Facebook, and political commentaries are loaded with examples of people taking strong stands just to vent and in ways that show no regard either for others or for outcomes. Social media and political commentaries should not be our model for Christian discourse or Christian conduct.
It is worth considering, too, that Jesus did not always speak truth to power. He did not always call out wrongdoing. He let a lot of stuff slide. Jesus had his share of perfect opportunities to speak truth to power, but sometimes (and in critical moments) he declined to do so. Paul didn’t just go around blasting away at every error whenever he found one, either. Of all the extant literature from the first century in any language, no one uses the language of emotion more than Paul, not even Jesus–language of love, care, hope, longing, joy, encouragement, etc. Let that sink in. Before Paul or Jesus did their correcting or took their moral positions, they had already invested a lot of time and energy in loving.
The point is that Christian social responsibility is not just about truth telling. Discretion matters. Skill matters. Sincerity matters. Effectiveness matters. And, above all, love matters. Jesus didn’t say, “Speak truth to power.” He did say, “love one another, “love your neighbor,” “love your enemy.”
My point here is not to suggest that Christian love requires us to ignore wrong doing or tolerate systemic evil or excuse social abuse of any kind. Far from it. I believe that the Gospel faith is spiritually redemptive only when it is morally relevant, socially responsible and politically engaged. My point is that pursuing social justice is never as easy as the admonition to speak truth to power makes it sound. Jesus and Paul did plenty of correcting and challenging, but only among those with whom they were in relationship. Their goal was to restore those relationships, to build community, and to reconcile the world to God, not simply to air out their righteous indignation.
I have these suggestions for you to consider (or ignore, if you prefer) if you are wrestling with the difficult balance between love and social engagement:
• Before airing out your complaint, ask yourself what your objective is. What is the goal you want to accomplish? Do you have the welfare of the person with whom you are engaged in your heart? Or do you just want to air it out, to express yourself, or establish your position? In doing so, can you express your genuine care for the other? While you are being expressive, are you also being persuasive?
• Before expressing your objection to another person’s specific conduct, ask yourself about the nature of your relationship with that person and if that relationship is something you want to preserve or not? Notice that Jesus and Paul reserved their most difficult conversations for the people they cared for the most, the ones with whom they were closest.
• Before correcting another’s errors, can you internalize and frame your concern in a way that expresses your recognition that you, too, can be in error?
• Evaluate the effects of your engagement. Did you persuade or did you alienate?
• Keep in mind that no one is right all the time and no one strikes the best balance between loving one’s neighbor and telling the truth all the time. Not Jesus. Not Paul. No you or me. Especially not me. Sometimes, we are the ones who need to seek forgiveness.
Some Christian activism seems to lean heavily on confrontation that is presumed to be prophetic, but that is not all there is. There is also being effective. There is also being tactful. There is also maintaining and building relationships. There is also love.
By Peter J Miano